HARROGATE, Tenn. - Lincoln Memorial head baseball coach Jeff Sziksai has unveiled a brutal 47-game 2019 schedule for the Railsplitters that commences on February 1.
The two-time defending South Atlantic Conference champion Railsplitters, who are coming off a program record-tying 36-win campaign, will be tested early and often in 2019.
Of the team's 47 regular-season matchups, 25 will be played on the road, including nearly the entire first month and a half of the season.
Among those 25 road games are several proven opponents, including the annual season-opening, three-game series at USC Aiken, who went 35-19 last season, a three-game stand at 2009 national champions Lynn, a single game against a King team that went 29-19 last season and a doubleheader at 2018 NCAA tournament participant Bellarmine, who posted a 38-19 mark last season.
"It will be good," Sziksai said of the road-heavy start. "We need to go and learn how to play really good teams well on the road. That will be good for us. We have some really great teams on the road and that's going to toughen us up quickly.
"It's going to be a challenge and if we can go and perform well, we check a lot of boxes for the regional rankings," he added. "If we don't, hopefully we will learn and get better from it."
The Railsplitters' lone appearance at Lamar Hennon Field in February will come in a three-game series against Ohio Valley February 8-9. After that, Lincoln Memorial won't play at home again until defending SAC regular-season champions Catawba comes to town March 1-2, which precedes another section of the schedule that will send the Railsplitters on the road for seven of their next nine games.
Sziksai views the treacherous early-season schedule as an opportunity to see exactly what his team is made of right from the start.
"The way I look at it is I want to jump right into the fire right away, and that's kind of what we are doing," he said. "The idea is that when you jump into South Atlantic Conference play, you're ready.
"You are confident in what your strengths and weaknesses are when you play really good teams," he added. "When you are playing really good opponents, you get exposed. That's kind of what I want. I want to win, but I want to be exposed early so we know exactly where we are at."
The Railsplitters open SAC play February 22-23 with a three-game series at Anderson. That will be one of four SAC road series for Lincoln Memorial this season, including trips to rival Carson-Newman March 8-9, Lenoir-Rhyne March 15-16 and Tusculum April 12-13.
Lincoln Memorial will be at home a lot more often during the back half of the schedule, playing 14 of its last 19 games at Lamar Hennon Field.
"Let's go on the road, play good teams in good weather, get better and then come back home and settle in the back half of the year," Sziksai said of the approach.
That closing stretch includes three-game home weekend series against Queens March 22-23, Findlay March 30-31, Wingate April 5-6 and Newberry April 19-20.
With the unbalanced SAC schedule, the Railsplitters will not face either Mars Hill or Coker this season. Those two teams finished second-to-last and last in the conference last season, respectively.
However, Lincoln Memorial will take on Queens for the first time as the Royals are ready to commence their inaugural season. Queens will be led into the first season in program history by head coach and former MLB pitcher Jack McDowell.
"My expectations are that they will be good," Sziksai said of the newest SAC baseball program. "Again, not knowing what to expect, but they are going to be very competitive very quickly in our league."
The 2019 schedule will certainly prove a challenge, as the Railsplitters will play just eight of their first 28 games at home while staring down a gauntlet of capable opponents in both nonconference and conference play. It's a gamble, but one that Sziksai feels confident his team can maneuver.
"There's always the tradeoff of experience, getting better, battle-tested with making sure you perform well, too," he said. "It's definitely a balancing act, but I feel like we are veteran and mature enough to be able to handle the schedule."
The South Atlantic Conference tournament begins on April 25 and runs through April 29 at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, Tenn. The winner of the SAC tournament earns an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.