COLUMBIA - Even before he knew his top hitter would be back next season, South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook talked about his program's unwavering goal to return to the College World Series.
Despite six key players leaving the program to begin their professional careers, Holbrook wasn't interested in rebuilding. He considered the list of incoming freshmen, matched them with returning veterans, and said the Gamecocks would reload in 2015.
"It's going to be exciting to see new faces, but I'm also going to be comforted that we'll have Connor Bright back and Marcus Mooney back and DC Arendas back and Max Schrock back," Holbrook said. "It's not like it's a whole new team."
Add first baseman Kyle Martin to the list, and South Carolina will have an unexpected wealth of experience returning next spring. The Gamecocks return three starting infielders. They return two pitchers from their weekend rotation.
But one of the biggest keys may be the unknown. South Carolina got major contributions from first-year players last season, pitcher Wil Crowe and outfielder Gene Cone chief among them. The Gamecocks could use more production from its next freshman class.
South Carolina's incoming players will have opportunities. At catcher, third base, outfield and on the pitching staff, newcomers may be counted on to play significant roles. Holbrook said he's looking forward to seeing what the new batch of rookies is able to offer.
"I'm as excited about this recruiting class as I've been for any class since I've been here," Holbrook said. "I hate to put those kind of expectations on them, but it's a talented group. It might not be one that's ranked as high as Tanner (English) and Grayson (Greiner), but I'm expecting just as much from those guys as I've had from any recruiting class."
Indeed, those are weighty expectations. South Carolina landed the nation's top recruiting class in 2011, led by Greiner, English, Joey Pankake and Jordan Montgomery. Recruiting rankings won't be released for the current crop of freshmen until the fall.
South Carolina's recruiting class survived the annual battering ram that is the MLB Draft. Holbrook expected several players could have difficult options on whether to enter his program or professional baseball, including left-handed pitcher Alex Destino, right-handed pitcher Brandon Murray and infielder Madison Stokes.
Murray was drafted in the 30th round by the Philadelphia Phillies, and Stokes was drafted in the 40th round by the New York Yankees. Both quickly announced their intention to attend South Carolina.
"We obviously dodged some bullets in regards to that class regarding professional baseball and the draft," Holbrook said. "Those that we felt like we could lose, we're going to keep. They're going to start their careers as Gamecocks in August. We're excited about that group."
Holbrook will be at home watching as Vanderbilt and Virginia play for a national championship this week in Omaha. He hopes the fresh faces lead South Carolina back to the championship series next summer.