New breed of Gamecocks hopes to lead USC back to NCAAs

South Carolina’s Alex Destino hits a go-ahead two-run homer against the College of Charleston last season. Destino, a designated hitter much of last season, will move to first base this year. (AP Photo/Dwayne McLemore/The State)

COLUMBIA — Dom Thompson-Williams grew up 100 miles from Omaha, Neb., and traveled to the College World Series every year. He was there the seasons South Carolina won back-to-back national championships, and there was something about those pinstriped jerseys and garnet and black colors that won him over.

So when Thompson-Williams emerged as a star outfield on an Iowa Western team that won the junior college national championship, and SEC programs began showing interest — he knew where he wanted to go.

“They called me, and one thing led to another,” he said of South Carolina’s coaching staff. “They wanted me as badly as I wanted to come here.”

Now Thompson-Williams is a key piece in head coach Chad Holbrook’s effort to return the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament, which USC missed last season for the first time since 1999. That quest opens Friday against Albany, with a team that looks very different from the one that went 32-25 a year ago.

Of the 43 players on Holbrook’s roster, 20 will be taking the field for USC for the first time. From junior college transfers like Thompson-Williams and infielder Jonah Bride, to freshmen like outfielder T.J. Hopkins of Summerville and pitcher Braden Webb, they’ll likely all have a chance to try and help return the Gamecocks to the postseason.

“I think there’s a sense of urgency around here. I think our players were very disappointed in the way last year went, the ones that are returning,” Holbrook said. “But we’ve also got some new players that are here, and some players that are very talented. They don’t know what happened last year. They didn’t experience it.”

The USC many of these newcomers know is the one that won two national titles and played for another in a three-year span as successful as any Gamecocks team has enjoyed in any sport. Those championships certainly played a role in Thompson-Williams becoming a USC fan, despite growing up in Sioux City, Iowa. “They definitely did,” he said.

Hopkins was in middle school then, and those College World Series runs clearly left an impression on him. “Most of us are here because we’ve seen the success,” he said. “That’s what we want, all of us, and we’re working really hard to get that.”

That influx promises to change the dynamic of a team that no longer has any active players from those squads that reached Omaha. (Kyle Martin and Patrick Harrington, seniors last year, were the last two.) A USC team that struggled with intangibles like energy and leadership last season is getting a needed jolt from newcomers hungry for playing time — and in the case of Thompson-Williams, not hesitant to share an opinion.

“He’s been a presence in our locker room,” Holbrook said. “It’s very rare for newcomers to come in here and assume a leadership role, but I think everyone in our locker room respects Dom. Some of them might be half-afraid of him, too. But he’s a leader.”

Thompson-Williams half-jokes that some teammates “didn’t like me when I first got here.” But “we need a little more confidence and cockiness,” he said. A .409 hitter in junior college, he’s secured one outfield spot with Hopkins, two-sport freshman Brandon McIlwain, and returnees like Gene Cone and Clark Scolamiero among those competing for the others.

It’s like that all over. “I’ve got 14 position players, and there are only a couple who have separated themselves,” Holbrook said. On the mound Clarke Schmidt appears the likely Friday starter, with other rotation options ranging from returnees Taylor Widener and Josh Regan to freshmen Webb and Adam Hill.

“It’s both scary and exciting,” Holbrook said. “A lot of these kids understand the expectations that are before them at the University of South Carolina. That’s why they came here. But all I can do is go off of what I feel, what I’ve seen, what I’ve observed. It’s a new team.”

There are some veteran mainstays, like Schmidt, third baseman D.C. Arendas, middle infielder Marcus Mooney and first baseman Alex Destino. But Martin, pitcher Jack Wynkoop and second baseman Max Schrock, the trio which comprised the heart of last year’s team, are gone. In their place are newcomers whose eagerness is raising the competitive stakes.

“We’ve got young kids who are working hard for spots, so it’s kind of good,” Schmidt said. “It creates this competition in the dugout and the locker room. It’s breeding a lot of excellence in all of us. So I think it’s good that we have all these young kids who are hungry to win and to play.”

And to return South Carolina to the team they watched competing for national titles while growing up. “Hopefully, we change the program,” Thompson-Williams said. “Turn it back around, and get it back to where it has been over the years.”

2015 RECORD: 32-25 (13-17 SEC)

COACH: Chad Holbrook, 119-63 in fourth season

TOP PLAYERS: RHP Clarke Schmidt (2-2, 4.81 ERA); OF Gene Cone (.257, 12 RBI); 1B Alex Destino (.251, 6 HR, 35 RBI)

TOP NEWCOMERS: OF Dom Thompson-Williams (6-0, 185), Iowa Western CC; OF T.J. Hopkins (6-1, 180), Summerville; OF Brandon McIlwain (6-1, 200), Newtown, Pa.; INF Jonah Bride (5-10, 190), Neosho (Kansas) CC

OUTLOOK: If USC is to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing it last season for the first time since 1999, it will be on the strength of newcomers who comprise nearly half the Gamecocks roster. Holbrook has plenty of pieces to work with, particularly in the outfield and on the mound, but many of them will be getting their first taste of competition in the SEC. Returning pitchers Schmidt and Taylor Widener need to have good years to provide some stability.

FEBRUARY

19—Albany, 4 p.m.; 20—Albany, 2 p.m.; 21—Albany, 1:30 p.m.; 23—Appalachian State, 4 p.m.; 24—Winthrop, 4 p.m.; 26—Penn State, 4 p.m.; 27—Penn State, 4 p.m.; 28—Penn State, 1:30 p.m.

MARCH

1—at The Citadel, 7 p.m.; 4—Clemson, 7 p.m.; 5—vs. Clemson (Fluor Field, Greenville), 2:30 p.m.; 6—at Clemson, 2 p.m.; 8—Wofford, 7 p.m.; 9—Furman, 7 p.m.; 11—Charleston Southern, 7 p.m.; 12—Charleston Southern, 4 p.m.; 13—Charleston Southern, 1:30 p.m.; 15—at USC Upstate (Fluor Field, Greenville), 7 p.m.; 16—Davidson, 7 p.m.; 18—Arkansas, 7 p.m.; 19—Arkansas, 4 p.m.; 20—Arkansas, 1:30 p.m.; 24—at Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m.; 25—at Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m.; 26—at Ole Miss, 3 p.m.; 29—College of Charleston, 7 p.m.; 31—at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m.

APRIL

1—at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.; 2—at Vanderbilt, 3 p.m.; 5—Coastal Carolina, 7 p.m.; 8—Tennessee, 7 p.m.; 9—Tennessee, 4 p.m.; 10—Tennessee, 1:30 p.m.; 12—vs. North Carolina (AT&T Ballpark, Charlotte), 7 p.m.; 15—at Georgia, 7 p.m.; 16—at Georgia, 2 p.m.; 17—at Georgia, 1 p.m.; 20—at Furman (Fluor Field), 7 p.m.; 22—Missouri, 7 p.m.; 23—Missouri, 4 p.m.; 24—Missouri, 1:30 p.m.; 29—Florida, 7 p.m.; 30—Florida, 4 p.m.

MAY

1—Florida, 1:30 p.m.; 4—USC Upstate, 7 p.m.; 6—at Kentucky, 6:30 p.m.; 7—at Kentucky, 6:30 p.m.; 8—at Kentucky, 3:30 p.m.; 10—Presbyterian, 7 p.m.; 13—Texas A&M, 7 p.m.; 14—Texas A&M, 4 p.m.; 15—Texas A&M, 1:30 p.m.; 17—The Citadel, 7 p.m.; 19—at Alabama, 8 p.m.; 20—at Alabama, 8 p.m.; 21—at Alabama, 3 p.m.; 24-29—SEC Tournament (Hoover, Ala.)