LB Dantzler remembers showing up at South Carolina baseball practice in the fall of 2011 as a junior transfer from the State College of Florida. He was a little nervous and still trying to figure out how he might fit in with the defending two-time national champions when he encountered Ray Tanner, then the USC head coach.
I didnt know what to expect. We had all these guys who had been there before, and I was trying to find my way, Dantzler said. Coach Tanner, the first week last year, said, So, whats your main position? I was like, Oh no, they dont even know my position. Im a walk-on JUCO guy. Im in way over my head.
When the Winter Haven, Fla., native replied that he played third base, Tanner said, All right, go to third.
But Chad Holbrook, then the recruiting coordinator, knew Dantzler could flat-out hit from those junior-college days and would find a place somewhere in the lineup. He quickly settled in and won the third-base job, starting all 69 games there for a team that returned to the College World Series championship finals while batting .262 with 15 doubles, 10 homers, 48 RBIs and making five errors on defense.
When he returned for his senior season after getting bypassed in the MLB draft last summer, he was no longer worried about fitting in. The respect he had earned in his one season got him voted as one of the three captains, along with fifth-year seniors Nolan Belcher and Patrick Sullivan.
That was a really special thing for me, Dantzler said. This season the coaches know you, you have friends on the team, and you can joke around. Its a lot more comfortable.
Holbrook believes that comfort level has led to what can only be called a breakout season, as Dantzler resides in the Top 10 in several SEC hitting categories. Hes batting .326 with nine doubles, 10 homers and 38 RBI. His 26 walks, which have helped boost his on-base percentage to .437, speak to both his eye at the plate and the careful way that hes treated by opposing pitchers.
When youve been here a year and you know what to expect, I cant tell you how important it is to be comfortable. When youre a lot more comfortable in your environment, youre a lot more confident, Holbrook said.
I dont think hes any better of a hitter than he was a year ago. I think hes more mature, hes using the whole field more, he understands the way we want to do things and the way we coach him.
Dantzler is so comfortable that he made the transition across the diamond to first base. In order to accommodate talented freshman Max Schrock at second base, Holbrook moved returning second baseman Chase Vergason, Dantzlers senior roommate, to third with Dantzler going to first, where he has been steady if unspectacular.
The two good friends have helped each other make the switch.
If I ever had a question, he was right there to help me, Vergason said. We knew it made us stronger as a team if I moved to third and he was at first to hold down the corners.
Dantzler, who partly credits his increased production to mentally navigating occasional small slumps at the plate, believes not getting drafted last summer was a blessing in disguise. He came back to school focused on having a better season at the plate, becoming a team leader and getting his degree in sports and entertainment management.
He was recently named USCs male nominee for this years SEC H. Boyd McWhorter Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year for his classroom work and his community service. With a 3.64 GPA, he will need to complete an internship over the summer or fall after he finishes his course work this spring. He hopes to complete that internship with the minor league team that hes playing on after he gets drafted. And his parents want him to go to graduate school when his playing days end.
Father Brad Dantzler LB stands for Little Brad played in 1983-84 for Florida, where he led the Gators with a .348 average in 1983. But despite going to football games in The Swamp while growing up, the Gators didnt recruit the younger Dantzler to follow in his dads baseball footsteps.
He has no regrets over how things have worked out, however.
I naturally thought thats where I was going to be, he said. I tell all my friends now the best thing that ever happened to me was them (Florida) not wanting me to go there because I wouldnt trade coming here for anything.
Neither would his Gamecock teammates, who have watched their cleanup hitter carry them offensively all season.
LB has been doing his thing, Vergason said. Hes producing out on the field. Hes clutch when we need him to be. Hes had a lot of big hits for us.