COLUMBIA — One game in, and the newcomers on the South Carolina baseball team are already making their presence known.
John Jones drove in three runs with a double, Dom Thompson-Williams blasted a two-run homer, and freshman T.J. Hopkins from Summerville made a pair of strong defensive plays in the outfield Friday as the Gamecocks defeated Albany 10-1 on opening day before 7,434 at Founders Park.
“The guys were full of energy today,” said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. “They were full of togetherness. They were anxious for this day.”
It was a stark contrast to last season’s opener, a 6-3 loss to College of Charleston which marked the Gamecocks’ first setback to start the season since 1998. That foreshadowed a campaign which saw USC finish under.-500 in SEC play for the first time since 1997, and miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.
While the Great Danes aren’t exactly an NCAA-contending club like the Cougars, Friday marked a first step for an overhaled Gamecocks team with 16 new players on its 35-man roster.
“I don’t think new faces is even a relative term to us,” Jones said. “You go in the locker room, there’s no way you’d guess there are seven juco kids and X amount of freshmen. You don’t have that feel in there. There’s none of that. We all get along, and we just have to pay together.”
Jones, a catcher who transferred from State College of Florida, broke the game open in the third with a bases-loaded double that scored all three runners. Thompson-Williams, an outfielder who transferred from Iowa Western Community College, followed one inning later with his first homer in a USC uniform, a two-run blast to right-center.
“I think he’s a difference-maker for us, and I think you can see that,” Holbrook said.
Hopkins set up USC’s first run with a sacrifice bunt that led to a sac fly. But he shone most in the field, where he turned two double plays — a catch and throw-out at first to end the third inning, and a catch and throw-out at third to end the fourth.
His two outfield assists tied a USC single-game mark last reached by Elliott Caldwell in 2014. The former Summerville High School star also drove in a run on a bases-loaded walk. “I love the way T.J. Hopkins played,” Holbrook said. “He played great defense.”
Third baseman Jonah Bride, a transfer from Neosho (Kansas) Community College, had an RBI double and made a spectacular one-handed grab and throw to get a runner in the fifth. Freshman outfielder Brandon McIlwain, also a quarterback on the football team, debuted in the seventh and grounded to third in his only at-bat.
“Just seeing the natural raw talent that all the new guys have ... they can absolutely crush the ball,” said USC starter Clarke Schmidt, who struck out six to pick up the win. “They were killing the ball in the spring, and in fall scrimmages.”
Friday they hammered out 10 hits against Albany starter Stephen Woods, a former sixth-round Major League draft pick who throws in the 90s and had scouts on hand to see him. “We faced a really good arm,” Holbrook said. And his rebuilt team is off to a hopeful start.
“The new guys, obviously, they’ve changed the dynamic in our locker room,” Holbrook said, “and I think some older guys have fed off that.”