COLUMBIA — Chad Holbrook will never forget last season.
“It will be something that will be with me for a long period of time. Probably forever, for the rest of my life,” South Carolina’s head baseball coach said Thursday. “Not that it was a total disaster, but it was close. That’s not what we expect of our baseball program and our team here.”
Friday, when the Gamecocks begin fall practice for the 2016 season, is another step toward leaving it behind. USC went 32-25 last year, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999 in a maddening campaign in which Holbrook struggled to find the right lineup on the field and the right chemistry in the clubhouse.
The Gamecocks move forward with a very different team, one that includes seven additions from the junior college ranks after mainstays like first baseman Kyle Martin, infielder Max Schrock and Friday night starter Jack Wynkoop departed upon being chosen in the Major League draft.
“Our expectations are very high even though we have new players,” Holbrook said “I told the guys yesterday, and I fully believe this — I expect nothing less than to be among the nation’s elite come the end of our season. We certainly have the ability, the toughness, the mentality to be there, to be one of the last teams standing at the end. That’s what I expect, and I think our players expect that as well.”
Taylor Widener, USC’s closer last season, will miss fall practice after undergoing surgery to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerve in his throwing arm. And pitcher Wil Crowe, who had Tommy John surgery last year, will likely redshirt the season even though the staff ace could be cleared by April.
“I think that’s too late in the year to burn a redshirt year,” Holbrook said, “and the last thing we want to do is rush him back.”
Among 18 new players are three from the Lowcountry — freshman outfielder T.J. Hopkins from Summerville, freshman right-handed pitcher Harrison Smith from Mount Pleasant, and junior right-handed pitcher Hayden Heflin, a Summerville native and transfer from Spartanburg Methodist.
“These new guys that came in, they’re phenomenal on and off the field,” said sophomore Alex Destino, who could play first base and pitch this coming season. “The vibe in the locker room is one that, it’s been a little while since I’ve felt that, and that makes me extremely excited.”
That chemistry could make a difference for a team eager to turn the page from last season, when it won series over Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, but struggled in mid-week games against in-state opponents, and ultimately saw the SEC’s longest active streak of postseason appearances come to an end.
“Obviously, last year was a very disappointing season for us,” Holbrook said. “We’re not going to harp on last year around this stadium much. But we’re not going to forget about it, either. We’re going to work extremely hard to make sure that doesn’t ever happen again.”