With the opening of spring practice Friday at Carolina Stadium, the South Carolina baseball team officially started the three-week countdown to Opening Day in mid-February.
After going to the College World Series finals each of the past three seasons, a run that included national championships in 2010 and 2011, the Gamecocks know that all eyes are going to be on them. Nobody is more aware of that than new coach Chad Holbrook, who took over for Ray Tanner after he moved into the athletics directors job.
Holbrook, who spent the previous four seasons as the third-base coach and recruiting coordinator in the program, believes this team, which is ranked No. 7 in the Baseball America preseason Top 25, has the ability to achieve at the highest level.
We like our experience, we like our leadership, we like the athleticism that we can put out there. With that being said, weve got a lot of work to do as well, Holbrook said. You dont win a national championship in January. They dont give you a trophy or a ring based on how good they think youre going to be. But we do feel good about our team.
Holbrook understands this team must prove it can overcome the loss of pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Price, first baseman Christian Walker, and outfielders Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews, all of whom played integral roles in the championship seasons. But he likes his trio of senior captains, first baseman LB Dantzler and pitchers Nolan Belcher and Patrick Sullivan.
I feel very comfortable with the leadership of our program. I feel very comfortable that every person in that locker room respects the heck out of those three guys, Holbrook said.
Dantzler knows its time for his class to step up.
We cant replace certain players, but at the same time, we have to move on. Were ready to do that, he said.
USCs past three teams which combined to go 158-50 overall and 61-28 in the SEC had plenty of character as well, featuring strong personalities that showed ability and resilience on the field and humor and high spirit off it. Holbrook hopes this group can come together in the same way.
Our personality will develop as the season unfolds, he said. That identity is going to be defined over time, through wins, through losses, through struggles.
Pitching depth and talented players up the middle are likely to be the calling cards of these Gamecocks. Right-hander Colby Holmes and left-hander Jordan Montgomery will front the starting rotation, with lefty Tyler Webb closing games, while sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner, sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake, freshman second baseman Max Schrock, and sophomore center fielder Tanner English form the heart of the offense and defense.
Greiner, one of the nations top catchers, calls a trip to Omaha the primary goal and believes this team can come together.
We, obviously, know we lost some big pieces, but I think weve got the right captains and the right leaders in the locker room and on the field that can take us to some special places, he said.
Dantzler, who hit .262 with 10 homers last season, and Greiner, who hit .222 with six homers, are expected to provide the punch in the lineup, although both are determined to pull the ball less and drive the ball to all fields to get those batting averages up. The speedy English, who has taken up switch-hitting after batting .298 with 12 steals last season, is being counted upon to lead a much more active running game.
He understands its time for last seasons rookies to be this seasons veterans.
Im not going to be sitting back and watching how everybody does stuff around here. I know what to expect and know what our opponents are going to bring, English said. Hopefully, I can be a guy who goes out there from day one and leads by example.
The lineup should be filled out by senior Chase Vergason at third base, junior-college transfer Graham Saiko in left field, and sophomore T.J. Costen in right field. But Holbrook sees the biggest promise in the double-play combo of a much-improved Pankake and rising star Schrock.
Were not going to have the season we want to have if Joey Pankake has a mediocre year. Hes that important to us, Holbrook said.
And he even compared the precociousness of Schrock to Christian Walker as a freshman the kind of player who can help keep the string of CWS trips going.
Im counting on Max to be a special, special player here. Anytime you out a freshman in the lineup hitting in the three-hole on Opening Day, thats the ultimate compliment from a coaching staff, Holbrook said.