Nolan Belcher stepped into South Carolinas weekend rotation as a freshman in 2009 as part of a talented class of young players. Among the left-handers 13 starts, he registered SEC wins against Arkansas, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia.
Others in that recruiting class had to wait their turns. Michael Roth was a situational reliever and backup first baseman. Matt Price was a middle reliever before being injured. Adam Matthews was a reserve outfielder. Only right-fielder Jackie Bradley had a bigger impact as a freshman than Belcher.
Fast-forward to 2013 and those players have moved on to the professional ranks except for Belcher, whos back where he started in the weekend rotation after serving in a variety of roles as well as overcoming Tommy John surgery.
Its definitely been a long journey for sure, being in my fifth year. Ive seen some great players come through here, he said. Its going to be bittersweet when it all ends.
But hes ready to go out on a high note and try to help lead the Gamecocks to a fourth consecutive College World Series appearance. He pitched well in last weekends 3-2 loss to Liberty, striking out nine batters and giving up four hits and one walk in 52/3 innings.
He was impressive, USC catcher Grayson Greiner said. A lot of people probably look at Nolan as not so much of a swing-and-miss guy, but I think hes got tremendous swing-and-miss stuff.
He gave up a solo homer and RBI triple in the fourth inning which proved to be the difference in the game. His performance earned him another start against Albany on Sunday.
It was exciting to throw that first weekend. But its a week-to-week thing. It doesnt mean Ive locked anything down. Theres competition every day, Belcher said. I was pleased with the command I showed and how many strikes I threw. The only thing I was displeased with was letting those two runs score with two outs.
The 5-foot-8 Belchers signature pitch is a big looping curveball that he throws consistently for strikes, but pitching coach Jerry Meyers says theres more to the repertoire than that. He cites Belchers ability to disrupt the timing of opposing hitters with a fastball that can be thrown to spots, a plus changeup, a cutter-slash-slider, and, of course, that curveball.
Meyers wasnt around for Belchers first two seasons, which included 2010, when the left-hander served primarily as a mid-week starter and middle reliever. But he was here to see Belchers elbow injury in 2011 that led to a redshirt season. And he watched Belcher get back into a role as a situational reliever last season.
He worked extremely hard. He was meticulous throughout. He was here all the time. You could tell he was driven, Meyers said. He does all the right things anyway, but on top of that during his rehab, you saw a little bit more intestinal fortitude.
His work ethic and intensity have earned him the respect of the coaches and his teammates, who voted him as one of the three captains this season. Meyers cited his willingness to pitch in any role without complaint as an admirable trait, while Greiner references the fearlessness that Belcher displays on the mound.
Belcher, who has retired his pregame backflip from last season as the team searches for a different spark, appreciates the show of faith in him and aims to live up to the standards that come with being a captain.
It adds a little bit of pressure because you have more responsibility, he said. Youve got to keep them accountable and youve got to keep yourself accountable because everybody is watching.
Belcher, who will graduate with a sports management degree in May, has done his dues paying . After not getting to pitch in the 2010 CWS and being injured for the 2011 CWS, he was thrilled to take the mound in Omaha last season in relief against Arizona in the championship series.
It was very special. It was a long time coming, but it felt good. It was kind of surreal, he said. You grow up watching the World Series, and you cant really put it into words.
Now hed like to return one last time and go out like his old classmates Roth, Price, Matthews and Bradley.
Ive said it multiple times, but Ill just do whatever the coaches ask me to do. I just want to win and I want us as a team to be successful and get back to Omaha, he said. If starting on Sundays is the best chance for us to win, then thats how I want to finish. If its moving to the bullpen, Ill do that also.
When his career finally ends, hell leave a happy man.
Looking back, I guess I picked the right school, huh? There are a lot of great memories on the field but also off the field, in the locker room and on campus, he said. Ive met a lot of great people and made a lot of great friends along the way.
WHO: USC (2-1) vs. Albany (0-2)
WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m.; Sunday, doubleheader starting at noon, both games 9 innings
WHERE: Carolina Stadium
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5 Friday, Sunday; 1320 AM Saturday
SERIES: First meeting
RANKINGS: USC is No. 7 in Baseball America
PITCHING MATCHUPS: Saturday, USC LHP Jordan Montgomery, So., 1-0, 0.00 vs. Albany RHP Kasciem Graham, Sr., (first appearance); Sunday 1, USC RHP Colby Holmes, Sr., 0-0, 2.84 vs. Albany RHP Derek Zielinski, Sr., 0-1, 6.75; Sunday 2, USC LHP Nolan Belcher, Sr., 0-1, 4.76 vs. Albany RHP Austin Chase, 0-1, 15.75
NOTES: The Great Danes lost a pair of games to Canisius, 8-2 and 12-4, last weekend. Albany went 22-32-1 last season, 16-8 in the America East Conference. After two appearances last weekend, USC LHP Tyler Webb has 80 for his career, eighth on the schools all-time list and 22 behind leader Matt Price.