Juniors to lead USC baseball charge

South Carolina shortstop Joey Pankake was among the team's leaders last season with a .311 batting average. (AP Photo/Ted Kirk

Joey Pankake felt like a normal college student still adapting to a new school year, even if his .311 batting average as South Carolina’s No. 3 hitter last spring indicated otherwise.

He faced the swarm of reporters Friday outside the home dugout at Carolina Stadium, a familiar position for the Gamecocks infielder. Pankake has been the center of attention since he arrived on campus two years ago. The spotlight was nothing new.

But it felt different.

“We’ve always had some older guys around,” Pankake said. “I feel like there aren’t as many older guys than us around. It feels weird being a junior because I’ve never felt old, but I’ve never been a junior before. It’s weird.”

Just as weird for USC coach Chad Holbrook.

The recruiting class South Carolina signed in the wake of its second national championship — the group that ranked No. 1 in the country out of high school — is midway through their college careers. They are still baby-faced, young by comparison. They’re about to grow up quickly.

The Gamecocks opened fall practices with a scrimmage Friday afternoon. It was the first step in a long journey USC hopes to end in Omaha, Neb., where the program could reach its fourth College World Series in the past five seasons.

The juniors will mostly be responsible for leading the way. USC has only four seniors on its fall roster. First baseman Brison Celek is the only senior fielder, one fewer than the team had when outfielder Graham Saiko was on its roster.

Holbrook announced Tuesday that Saiko will no longer be part of the team. He will remain at South Carolina as a student, where he’s expected to attain his degree within the next year.

“I hate it for Graham that he’s not going to be on our team this year, but me and him had some heart-to-heart talks,” Holbrook said, declining to offer specifics. “He thought it was best, I thought it was best, that right now we go into a different direction.”

A young team would make most coaches nervous, especially in the SEC. Not Holbrook.

He knows his juniors have aged beyond their years. They have seen high-pressure moments in the NCAA tournament, and they delivered. The group doesn’t know what it’s like to end a season short of the NCAA super regional, a streak USC hopes to continue in 2014.

“I feel great about our leadership today,” Holbrook said, emphasizing the present. “Now, I might not be this way in a couple weeks, but right now we’ve had great energy, great work ethic and guys who are chomping at the bit to get on the field.”

It’s up to the players to keep their coach’s confidence high.

Catcher Grayson Greiner said the junior class talked often this offseason about the urgency of becoming leaders. Only a few remain from USC’s national championship teams. Now, it’s time for the next generation of Gamecocks.

“The first two years, we’ve had some older guys who have won national championships,” Greiner said. “They were just kind of showing us the ropes a little bit. Now, that core group of us juniors kind of feel like it’s our team now, to take the ropes and kind of take the younger guys under our wing.”