Building the foundation

AVON PARK - After nearly three decades of playing and coaching baseball, Rick Hitt isn't worried about the fundamentals. The South Florida State baseball coach is entering his 16th year as the Panthers' skipper, and he knows the key to a successful season starts with the head coach.

"It's no secret that our season was very poor last year," Hitt said. "And I think I have to do a better job as a coach. It's my responsibility to get this program back where it was several years prior to last season."

Hitt knows that the program goes as he does. He wants to improve three key areas: recruiting, tweaking the system, and team unity.

"It starts with recruiting the right players - guys that fit into the way in which we're trying to do things."

Hitt added that he's trying to build an offense around the ever changing landscape of college baseball.

"From an offensive perspective, every year is a different team depending on what kind of team you put together," he said. "If you watch the College World Series last year, there were very few home runs. The offense has returned to being a more traditional game with fewer home runs. So we really based a lot of our recruiting on that. We should be a manufacturing-type of offensive team."

"No. 2, we're hoping, and we've seen, a good, solid set of attributes from a lot of these players in terms of buying into the workload and the success that they're supposed to have both on the field and off the field."

But Hitt knows team cohesiveness is maybe the most important factor.

"The chemical make-up of the team is something you work really hard on," he said. "I think the players have done a very good job of being a group that seems to enjoy being around each other."

"The rigors of a 56-game schedule takes its toll, but the ability to maintain the bond throughout the season is something that I think helps greatly with success no matter how talented you are."

This year's Panthers roster sports a healthy amount of freshman, 14 in all, but a solid core of seasoned sophomore pitchers like Zach Bailey, Tyler Bender, Justin Tedder, and Sebring native Zach Osha bring a lot of firepower to SFSC's rotation.

"We feel really comfortable with our pitching depth," Hitt said. "We think we're going to be in pretty good shape there, and defensively, we've been very sound throughout the fall and done a lot of good things."

SFSC is hoping another bout of the injury bug doesn't sweep through camp. Last year, it wiped out a solid group of pitchers, all before the season even began.

"We lost 10 starters - five to injury - last year before we even played a game which was rough," Hitt said. "Four of those guys are back, actually, three of them are in our starting rotation."

"We came through the fall with a good head of steam, turned the corner, have no injuries or academic issues, and we're excited to have everyone after the break and get started."

The Panthers open the season on the road with a tournament in St. Petersburg. SFSC plays Southwest Tennessee Community College at 2 p.m. Friday, with a quick turnaround on Saturday, facing Chipola College and Palm Beach State in a day-night doubleheader.

Opening day can't come soon enough for the Panthers.

"We're chomping at the bit to get started," Hitt said. "Our primary goal is to change the culture. So when our fans come out to watch the games, we want them to see the type of baseball we played for a long time - the type they're used to seeing. My job is to get us back to that spot."