With two teams dropping down to Division II of the National Junior College Athletic Association prior to the start of the year, it was already going to be a much different season for the University of South Carolina Sumter baseball squad and all of Region X.
The changes to the region tournament hammered home that point as the Fire Ants are now locked in to the opening play-in series that will take place a week from Saturday.
Where that play-in series will be played is still up in the air, however, as the Fire Ants get set to host Florence-Darlington Technical College this weekend with tournament seeding still not set in stone.
The two teams will play a pair of games on Saturday starting at 1 p.m. at Riley Park and face off in another doubleheader on Sunday at 1 p.m. as well.
The top two teams in Region X earn berths in the now 4-team, double elimination tournament to be held in Burlington, N.C., in a little over two weeks. The other two teams will have to earn berths in a pair of 3-game series set to take place next weekend at the home of the higher seeds.
USC Lancaster (11-3) and Spartanburg Methodist College (10-4) currently hold the top spots, but FDTC isn't far off at 10-6. It holds one of the higher seeds for the play-in series along with Louisburg (4-8), which has a slight edge over USC Sumter (5-11) based on winning percentage. USC Salkehatchie (4-12) is currently in sixth place and would have to travel to Florence next weekend if everything remains the same.
"Right now, based on percentage points, we would have to travel to Louisburg again," USC Sumter head coach Tim Medlin said. "We had a terrible weekend there (losing three of four). But if we can manage to win some games this weekend, there is the possibility we could move ahead of Louisburg and they'd have to come to us.
"We definitely don't want to have to make that 3 1/2-hour ride, so we need to play well this weekend."
USCS missed a golden opportunity to improve its standing last week against SMC. The Fire Ants won the opener and had late leads in the next two games before the Pioneers rallied and wound up taking three out of four.
The Fire Ants will look for better luck against the Stingers. FDTC is 32-17 overall and has won its last five in a row. Pitching has been a key factor with a team earned run average of 4.11. Three of the top four starters have ERAs under 3.45.
"They've been pitching it exceptionally well," Medlin said. "They haven't scored a ton of runs, but they've scored enough to win. They took three out of four from USC Lancaster earlier in the year, so they're a good club and we're going to have to play well to compete and win."
USC Sumter is 26-23 overall after sweeping Salkehatchie in two non-region contests on Wednesday. The Fire Ants' team ERA is a little over 6.00, with a team batting average around .270.
Grayson Cottingham, Eric McGirt and Patrick Price have been solid at the top of the lineup all year as each is sporting a batting average over .320.
"We're going to need those guys to continue to produce and we're still looking for some guys to step up," Medlin said. "We've put a lot of young guys and some walk-ons in spots that maybe they weren't quite ready for yet, but we've played a little better lately and we just have to keep improving.
" We're kind of playing with house money, so we have nothing to lose."