The everyday players from South Carolina’s two national championship baseball teams are gone. So are the pitching ace and closer. And the head coach who guided both of those teams to titles? He sits in a different office these days.
So as the Gamecocks begin fall practice for the 2013 season, new coach Chad Holbrook understands things are going to be a little different.
“This team is going to have to build and develop their own identity, no doubt. It’s a new start,” Holbrook said. “Coach (Ray) Tanner is one of the best to ever coach in college baseball. There’s going to be an adjustment period. The good thing about this situation is there’s familiarity for our players with our staff.”
The Gamecocks first survived the loss of Whit Merrifield, Blake Cooper, Bobby Haney and Sam Dyson after the 2010 title to win another one. They bounced back from the loss of Jackie Bradley, Scott Wingo, Adrian Morales, Brady Thomas, Peter Mooney and John Taylor after the 2011 championship to reach the College World Series finals again.
Now they must find a way to replace Michael Roth, Christian Walker, Matt Price, Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews to keep their run of CWS appearances going. While there is some experience returning, there are significant holes to fill.
“Needless to say, it’s a very important fall for us,” Holbrook said. “We have some talented players, and we’re expecting big things from this team. ... There are a lot of questions to be answered as we go through the fall.”
Finding a Friday night starter, a closer, a first baseman and a couple of outfielders will be difficult enough, but tougher will be replacing the experience, winning attitude and leadership brought to the past three teams by Roth, Price, Walker, Marzilli and Matthews.
“That’s one thing all those guys did so well,” sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner said. “They led the team. They weren’t just great players; they also led in the clubhouse and the dugout. We’ve got to find new guys to step up and help the young guys get acclimated.”
Greiner, who had a strong freshman campaign by hitting six homers with 32 RBIs and playing well defensively, could be one of those new leaders. Senior third baseman LB Dantzler, the top returning power hitter with 10 homers and 48 RBIs, also figures to play a more prominent role in taking charge.
“I’m ready for that. I want to step up and help the new guys ...,” Dantzler said. “It’s a general understanding. Naturally, you look to the guys who have been there and done it before.”
Holbrook said the leadership is something that’s earned in the clubhouse.
“That will develop over time,” Holbrook said.
“Do I know who our leaders are going to be? No. I don’t. I think we have some good players who are going to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, when it comes to leadership.”
Those returning players from the 49-20 team that lost to Arizona in the CWS finals also must pull together to duplicate Roth’s nine wins, Price’s 13 saves, Walker’s 11 homers and 55 RBIs and Marzilli’s spectacular defense.
Outfielder Tanner English and shortstop Joey Pankake played key roles as freshmen and should be better this season. And there is experience returning on the mound with left-handers Tyler Webb and Jordan Montgomery and right-hander Colby Holmes.
Holmes feels good about what he sees around him in terms of the Gamecocks maintaining their lofty status.
“Standards are high,” Holmes says, “But I feel like the team this year is going to be as capable as last year’s — or better.”