CHULA -- The Tiftarea Academy Panthers will open their 2003 baseball season today with a 4 p.m. home doubleheader against the Trinity Christian Academy Crusaders.

Today's games will be Tiftarea's first under new head coach Chad Roberts. An assistant at Statesboro High last season, the Tiftarea position will be Roberts' first as a head coach.

"I am looking forward to this season," he said. "Last year, this team did not have a senior and it took its share of bumps and bruises. But everyone is back and we will not playing in AAA anymore. With the move down to AA and with everyone back, we are all looking forward to having a good season."

Last year's youth translates into experience this year with four seniors on the squad.

"We will have John Womack, Taylor Hammond, Mackee Paulk and Kurt Rodgers," Roberts said. "They will have to provide a lot of leadership for us. They will also be our big-play guys. We are going to count on them to drive in a lot of runs for us," Roberts said.

Another key player will be Blake Phillips. The junior catcher will not play in the field today due to an injured elbow but will serve as the designated hitter.

"Blake Phillips is a big key to this ball club. When he is healthy, we will have a chance to be pretty good," said Roberts.

"We are expecting him to be cleared to throw Monday. With him not in there against Trinity, we are going to move some folks around," the coach added. "I am hoping that will give some of the younger guys a chance to step it up."

Tiftarea's pitchers have looked good in the preseason and could be another strength.

"Clint Karsten and Tanner Ivie are probably are two best returning pitchers. But, Taylor, Brett Brandenburg and Matt Lee have all been throwing strikes for us in the preseason," the coach stated.

"The only problem with Taylor pitching is that we have to take him out of centerfield. But we are going to need his arm this season."

There could also be a surprise pitcher on the horizon for Tiftarea fans.

"I have been pleasantly surprised by John Womack. He has never pitched before, but he got out there for us and has thrown strikes. He is a big, strong kid and is working hard on his pitching," Roberts said.

One other pitcher the Tiftarea coach brought up was Justin Collins. A sophomore, Collins will be out for another month due to a broken ankle. "We are going to expect him to contribute when he gets back, though," said Roberts.

With a doubleheader to open the season, Roberts said, "we will let everyone pitch today."

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