South Carolina missed a fourth consecutive trip to the College World Series last season by a single game. Grayson Greiner, Joey Pankake and Tanner English dont want that to happen again.
The trio of junior standouts return for what could be their final seasons as USC players, and as fall practice began Friday at Carolina Stadium, theyre ready to lead the program back to Omaha, where it won a pair of national titles in 2010-11.
The first two years, we had some older guys who had won national championships, and they were showing us the ropes a little bit. Now the core group of juniors feels like its our time now to take the younger guys under our wing, said Greiner, the catcher who played for Team USA this summer.
We came in as freshmen and played a good bit. Weve been in big SEC games and big national games. Were just going to try to make these younger guys feel as comfortable as possible because we know they have a lot of talent.
Thats what USC coach Chad Holbrook hopes will happen. He looks at Greiner, Pankake, who will play third base and pitch this season, and English, the speedy center fielder, and envisions them taking charge.
Grayson, Joey and Tanner are the backbone of our team, Holbrook said. You throw (pitcher) Jordan (Montgomery) in there, and thats a pretty good core of guys. When they came out of high school, they were part of the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, and theyve all gotten better.
All starters from the first day they stepped on campus, they are expected to keep improving as they begin their MLB draft-eligible seasons. Pankake, who played shortstop his first two seasons, batted .311 with 11 homers and 42 RBIs, the top returning totals on the team. Greiner, a top-notch defensive catcher, hit .298 with four homers and 38 RBIs. English, whose experiment as a switch-hitter last season will not carry over to this season, batted .283 with 25 RBIs and nine stolen bases.
Holbrook noted that all three have gotten physically stronger and worked hard to improve their games.
They all have the ability to be among the top college baseball players in the country if they play to their potential. With the amount of work and effort theyve put in, they can have special years, he said. I think theyre ready to have a great year, all of them, and if they do, our team will have a great year.
English, who played well in the Cape Cod League this summer, hopes to carry over his momentum from a standout performance in the NCAA Super Regional against North Carolina and lead by example for what Holbrook believes is a strong recruiting class.
If we just go out here, practice hard every single day, play the game like we know how and have fun, everything will fall into place, English said.
Pankake is ready to start his new adventure, shifting to third base so he can pitch and make room for the new junior-college arrival at shortstop, Marcus Mooney, the younger brother of Peter Mooney, who played for the 2011 national championship team.
Im just trying to get ready for whatever role I need to play for this year. If they need me, Im going to throw as much as I need to, Pankake said. I feel pretty comfortable over at third. I think Im making a good adjustment. Itll be good for me.
Holbrook expects all three to have the kind of big seasons that will get them drafted next June. But all of them say they are squarely focused on USCs season.
Were all doing our best not to think about the draft, Greiner said. All I care about is winning and doing what I can to help South Carolina win. I love it here. Its been the best three years of my life so far. Im just worried about getting better as a Gamecock.