Young Harris emerged as the best team in the Peach Belt Conference last season and expectations will be high for the Mountain Lions again this year.
But repeating as a champion is never easy. The pressure rises to another level and the expectations can border on unrealistic.
Only time will tell which team ends up as the conference champion but below are five games late in the year that should help shape the championship race in the Peach Belt.
Young Harris vs. SC Aiken on Sept 23
Technically, this game isn’t too late into the year, but it’s certainly a huge one as the top two teams from 2014 square off in a game that will go a long way in deciding a championship.
The Mountain Lions and Pacers were both NCAA tournament teams and both are expected to get back to the postseason again this year.
Their matchup in the regular season will have a playoff-feel to it as getting an early edge in the Peach Belt title race will be on the line. Last year, Young Harris dominated Aiken, rolling to a 5-0 win before edging the Pacers 1-0 in overtime in the conference tourney championship game.
Akien hasn’t forgotten either loss and will come in ready to take its best shot at knocking off the reigning champs.
on Oct. 10
The Mountain Lions rolled to a 6-3 win over the Patriots last season, adding another victory to what would turn out to be a 19-game win streak.
The Patriots did bounce back from the loss and went on to win six consecutive games before falling in the conference tournament. They finished third in the conference standings.
If Francis Marion wants to take the next step and win a Peach Belt title, though, this is a road game they need to find a way to steal.
SC Aiken at Francis Marion on Oct. 23
The Pacers are hungry to win a championship this season and their road game against the Patriots in late October will likely be a must-win if they want to stay in the title hunt.
Aiken suffered a gut-wrenching loss to the Patriots last year, falling 1-0 in overtime, but they managed to avenge the defeat in the Peach Belt tourney by coming away with a 3-1 win.
Both teams will be ready to roll in this showdown and while a loss won’t be the end of the world, it could mean the difference between between a first or second-place finish and a third or fourth-place spot in the Peach Belt standings.
Clayton State at SC Aiken on Oct. 23
Before the Lakers battle Young Harris in a regular-season finale, they will head to South Carolina to face off against Aiken, the Peach Belt runner-up a season ago. All of Clayton’s State’s focus will be on this one, especially after suffering a 4-1 loss to the Pacers last year.
Both teams will have plenty to play for, with Aiken likely to come in with a shot at the championship still within its reach.
The winner of this battle will no doubt be in great shape heading into the final week of the season. No matter what the outcome is, however, both teams will gain valuable experience that will serve them well in the conference tournament.
Young Harris at Clayton State on Oct 28
This matchup could prove to be one of the best of the year, and it’s only fitting that it falls on the last day of the regular season.
It’s a safe bet that the Mountain Lions will be alive and well in the mix for the title and may have very well wrapped it up by this time. But the Lakers could come into this showdown with a chance to play spoiler or perhaps even nail down the championship.
A year ago, Clayton State ended up fourth in the standings, finishing one game below .500 in league play, thanks in part to a 4-0 loss to the Mountain Lions.
The game should be much closer this year and the fact that the Lakers are at home for this one could help their cause in pulling off an upset.