COLUMBIA — Practice begins today for South Carolina’s baseball team, with changes abounding. Gone are players who had important roles on the 2010 and 2011 national championship teams. Ray Tanner, the Gamecocks’ coach since 1997, now reports to work up the hill from Carolina Stadium, as USC’s athletic director.
But the expectations built by those players and Tanner have not changed. So while many observers will wonder what this team will look like three weeks from today, when it jogs onto its home field for the season opener against Liberty, the real target date for these Gamecocks is about four months away, when the NCAA tournament begins on May 31.
What USC accomplished in Tanner’s final 13 years is nothing short of remarkable: 10 trips to the tournament’s Super Regional, six appearances in the College World Series, two national runner-up finishes and those two titles, which stand as the school’s crowning athletic achievements.
If Holbrook gets the Gamecocks back to Omaha, he will do it with a roster short on national title-winning experience. Just three of his players significantly contributed to a title. Junior pitcher Colby Holmes and senior pitcher Forrest Koumas contributed in 2011. Senior reliever Tyler Webb chipped in to both titles.
The Gamecocks are ranked fifth in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, seventh by Baseball America and 11th by Perfect Game USA. While they return a good deal of talent, those rankings also recognize what USC accomplished from 2010-12: a 158-50 record, including 61-28 in Southeastern Conference regular season play.
But will the Gamecocks have the leadership this season that carried them through so many close games over the past three seasons? While Holbrook returns two of three starting pitchers, the right-hander Holmes and sophomore lefty Jordan Montgomery, USC’s No. 1 starter and closer are gone: Michael Roth and Matt Price. So are center fielder Evan Marzilli, right fielder Adam Matthews and first baseman Christian Walker, USC’s leading hitter the past two years.
Holbrook will adjust by tweaking the roles of returning players and incorporating freshmen. USC brings back five of eight position starters. Sophomore Tanner English moves from left field to center, his more natural position. Sophomore TJ Costen is the likely new right fielder. Senior LB Dantzler moves from third base to first. Senior Chase Vergason, sliding over from second base, will get the first shot at winning the third base job.
The holes at second base and in left field will be filled initially by freshmen Max Schrock, whom Holbrook raves about, and Graham Saiko. Freshman George Iskenderian will push Vergason at third base. The leading contender to be the Sunday starter is freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop.
USC’s leading returners in batting average are English (.298), sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake (.264) and Dantzler (.262), who ranked second, fourth and fifth on the team in that category last season. But English struggled with consistency and struck out 71 times, 14 more than anybody else on the team. Holbrook is now asking English to switch hit — he was a righty batter last season — which will be a fitting storyline early in a season of changes.
“He might get off to a little slow start, just because it’s new for him,” Holbrook said. “He had played around with (switch hitting) some (before committing to it in fall practices), but he hadn’t done it much. I got tired of watching him strike out, so on the way home from Omaha last year, I said, ‘You’re switch hitting, bud.’ His eyes got big. I think he got tired of striking out, too.”