Kenny Thomas couldn’t have been happier Thursday.

It was the longtime USC Aiken baseball coach’s birthday, the weather was beautiful and he was getting the best gift he could’ve asked for. It was the first day his Pacers were allowed to practice in preparation for the start of their season, three weeks from today.

“What a great day to be here,” Thomas said of the diamond inside Roberto Hernandez Stadium, which features a new FieldTurf backstop stretching from the home dugout to the visitors’ side and featuring an impressively large Pacer logo thanks to a donation by the stadium’s namesake. “It’s great to be back out here. There’s a new excitement; everybody’s ready to go.”

There’s excitement for every team at this time of year. The expression “hope springs eternal” is valid even in the middle of the winter for teams getting a fresh start. But there’s reason for even more enthusiasm around the USCA baseball team because of a strong core of returning players coming back from a squad that went 37-18 last season but mysteriously wasn’t selected to play in the Division II NCAA Tournament. The team that finished last year ranked 20th has already been ranked in the top 25 of three separate preseason polls because of the strong returning contingent.

On Wednesday, the Pacers were picked 17th in the 2013 College Baseball Lineup NCAA Division II preseason poll and 21st in the preseason poll. They were tabbed 10th in the preseason Collegiate Baseball Newspaper NCAA Division II Poll released in December.

“This team has the best chemistry of any team we’ve had here,” Thomas said. “This team has got great potential to be a great ball club. But we’ve got to get that ‘P’ word off of it.”

The area Thomas said has the potential to be strength of the team, and the difference between the Pacers and their opponents, is the pitching staff. USCA has an experienced and deep pitching staff that features something of a rarity in college baseball, three returning weekend starters.

The Pacers’ top starting pitchers from last season – Wyatt Brown, Derek Beasley and Ryan Milewski – are all back and expected to resume their roles this season. They combined to go 23-7 for the Pacers last year and could be even better with another year’s experience under their belts. They have the advantage of throwing to veteran catcher Josh Miller again.

The fourth-year senior is coming off a season when he started 50 games, batted .376 with 14 doubles and seven home runs and had a team-best 57 RBIs to go along with 46 runs scored to earn him a spot on the All-Peach Belt Conference First Team.

He’s already been named a preseason All-American by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and figures to be an integral part of what the Pacers do, handling as many as 15 different pitchers in the heart of the season.

“This team is built around the pitching staff. It’s potentially – there’s that word again – the deepest and best we’ve had,” Thomas said, listing a variety of hurlers. “We can use a lot of combinations. We’ve got hard throwers and control guys. We’ve got righties and lefties and lots of guys to come out of the bullpen,” specifically sighting Taylor Grover and Jake Padgett, who combined for 11 saves last season.

Thomas also pointed out southpaw Caleb Smith as another weapon out of the bullpen, and the South Aiken alum was named a newcomer to watch by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Other veterans to provide relief and depth to the staff include Taylor Peed, Randy Sipp and Tyler Stephan – a fifth-year player who, along with Miller, forced Thomas to break from recent tradition. He’s named both veterans captains, the first time he’s bestowed the honor in seven years.

“All of our seniors are co-captains. It’s a real positive for this team,” Thomas said of his veterans, who he has confidence in being ready for the season opener on Feb. 1. “We just need to get ready to play. We’ll take grounders and batting practice,” in preparation for the season-opening, three-game series with Lincoln Memorial. It’s the ninth consecutive season the teams have opened against each other, and this is the second year in a row the Pacers will play all of their games at home for the first month – part of 17 games at the Bert to start the season.

“I want to win the first game, but I want to win them all,” Thomas said of not putting too much emphasis on any single contest, while not deviating form his longstanding goals of winning the PBC, followed by the PBC Tournament, the Southeast Regional and ultimately the Division II College World Series. He said it’s up to his team to make the goals a reality, regardless of opponent. “I’m more concerned with how we’re playing, not who we’re playing. But we will be ready opening day.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.