COLUMBIA — T.J. Hopkins learned from his father to keep an even-keeled demeanor. But taking the field before 7,000 spectators as a freshman on South Carolina’s opening day was one of those moments he couldn’t help but let sink in.
“I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life,” said the Summerville High School graduate. “… I knew from coming to games (here) that there are a lot of people, and it gets real loud. But it was still overwhelming.”
The Gamecocks outfielder could face a similar moment Tuesday in a different kind of home game — this one at Riley Park where USC meets The Citadel at 7 p.m. It’s the only contest in Charleston this season for Hopkins, part of a class of newcomers that has revamped South Carolina (8-0) off to an unbeaten start.
The former Green Wave star is off to a promising start of his own, tying the school record with two outfield assists in his first game and smashing a three-run homer against Winthrop. While he faces the same adjustment to college pitching as every freshman, he’s started six games and is tied for fourth on the team with five RBIs.
His biggest challenge is “being consistent every day,” Hopkins said. “You face a good pitcher every day. So it’s not like you get a good pitcher one day and then you get an average pitcher the next day. Every day you’re facing a good pitcher. That’s going to be the biggest transition moving forward.”
Hopkins said his priority is putting the ball in play. Head coach Chad Holbrook wants to see him reduce his strikeout rate from preseason scrimmages, which remains a work in progress — evidenced by his three Ks Sunday against Penn State.
“Like everybody said growing up — see the ball, hit the ball,” Hopkins said. “But now, you really have to focus on the pitcher, seeing it out of their hand and all that stuff. You never want to guess what pitch, but you’ve just got to react.”
Hopkins is one of several newcomers who have reinvigorated USC, which last season missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. Freshman pitcher Adam Hill will make his second start against the Bulldogs. Outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams has reached base in all eight games and is hitting .333. Infielder Jonah Bride has a .600 on-base percentage and has scored a team-high 13 runs.
Then there’s catcher John Jones, who sports a .593 batting average and Monday was named SEC co-player of the week after reaching base in all 14 plate appearances against Penn State. He drove in 10 runs over the course of the series and became the first USC player ever to record a 1.000 on-base percentage in a three-game set.
“I’m not saying anything to that kid,” Holbrook said. “Just let him keep playing, keeping him in that No. 3 hole and see if he can continue to keep driving in runs for us.”
Hopkins became enamored with college baseball at a young age — he always played up and wanted to be like the older kids receiving college offers. His parents Tim and Missy “made sure college was the first thing in my head,” he said. His father played college ball at USC Aiken and a great uncle played at Francis Marion, so it was only natural for T.J. to follow suit.
“Go to college, get your degree, play baseball,” he said. “This was the place where I wanted to do that.”
USC has won three straight over The Citadel dating back to a loss in Charleston in 2014. The Bulldogs (5-1) are coming off a weekend sweep of Siena. “We’ve gone down there many times and been in a fight for our life,” Holbrook said. “I think one of the years we won the national championship, they hung a loss on us down there.”
Hopkins estimates he’ll have about 20 friends and family members in the crowd. Like opening day, it could be another of those games that places his unflappable nature at odds with the emotion of the moment.
“I’m just going to take it as any other road game,” he said. “I know that is my neck of the woods, but I’m not going to get too nervous or think of it like that. I’m just excited to play another baseball game.”
USC will start freshman right-hander Hill (1-0, 0.00 ERA) on the mound, with sophomore right-hander Jacob Watcher (1-0, 6.00 ERA) pitching for The Citadel.