COLUMBIA — There are a few places Jack Wynkoop hopes to visit before his career in a South Carolina baseball uniform comes to an end. One is Omaha, Neb., the home of the College World Series. Another is Folly Beach, the home of the Washout.
“I know about it,” USC’s pitching ace said of the popular surfing spot outside Charleston. “I haven’t been there yet, but I want to go surf it.”
It’s easy to imagine the 6-5 left-hander carving up waves on the Edge of America, just as he’s done off the coasts of Venice Beach, Calif., and Costa Rica. There’s something about Wynkoop’s easygoing demeanor that gives away his passion outside of baseball, to the point where even teammates refer to him as “a laid-back surfer.” And in truth, he is — you can see the shortboard tucked away under his arm, even when he’s not carrying it with him.
These days, that unruffled nature cultivated over years of paddle-outs and pop-ups is paying dividends on the diamond, where Wynkoop has emerged as a steadying presence on a South Carolina team lurching through the final weeks of the regular season. Wynkoop stepped into the role of top starter when Wil Crowe was lost to Tommy John surgery, and the junior from Virginia Beach, Va., responded with a pair of sterling efforts that have kept alive the Gamecocks’ fading hopes of a 16th straight NCAA Tournament bid.
Two weeks ago, it was a 12-strikeout, complete-game victory over Vanderbilt. Last weekend, it was a seven-hit shutout of Tennessee. Wynkoop will get the ball again Friday at Carolina Stadium for the opener of a three-game set against Auburn, a series the Gamecocks (26-19, 9-12 SEC) likely have to win to keep their slim postseason hopes from disappearing altogether. In that environment, who better to take the mound than a laid-back surfer?
“I don’t know if I’ve coached a kid that’s as unflappable as he is. He stays in the moment, he’s not fazed by any stage or any opponent or any jam that he’s in,” said Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook.
“I hate to stereotype a surfer, but most of those guys are carefree, they love life, easygoing, unflappable. So I guess, yeah, he does have that surfer stereotype on the mound, and I do think that helps him, especially under the microscope you have here in this league and at this school. He uses that to his advantage.”
For Wynkoop, surfing is more a lifestyle than a hobby. He grew up in Los Angeles, and his father J.C. took him surfing for the first time at 4 years old. He moved to Virginia Beach when he was 10, and family gatherings always involved the water. Since age 13, he’s been an instructor at surf camps. For his senior project in high school, he took part in a program that taught wounded military veterans how to surf. He keeps his board with him at USC, although he doesn’t surf during baseball season.
He surfed competitively when he was younger, but soon realized — thanks to some advice from his father — that the ocean needed to be his refuge. Wynkoop channeled his competitive instincts into baseball, where his two interests combined to create a gifted pitcher with an imperturbable demeanor.
“I try and just control things that I can control. Maybe that has something to do with the surfing and all that, maybe it doesn’t. But I definitely try not to worry about things too much,” said Wynkoop, who has a 6-4 record and 2.71 earned run average.
“When I’m on the baseball field, I’m definitely locked in. It’s definitely a whole different attitude, a different sense going on. I think I kind of had to learn that when I got here.”
He’s certainly mastered it of late, carrying USC through this stretch run. Friday night brings another must-win game, this time against Auburn (30-16, 10-11), which has won six straight. June brings the Major League Baseball draft, for which the junior will be eligible. And then there’s the water, which will always prove Wynkoop’s escape, whether it’s back home in coastal Virginia or the shores of Folly Beach.
“My dream would be, if I couldn’t be a pro baseball player, I would definitely be a pro surfer,” he said. “But that’s not something that’s realistic.”