Starting his second season as South Carolinas baseball coach, Chad Holbrook has discovered a new comfort level.
Not that he struggled last season, when he guided the Gamecocks to a 43-20 record as they fell one win shy of a fourth straight trip to the College World Series. But he believes that hell be a better coach this time around.
Im a lot more comfortable. My hearts not racing as fast this year as it was last year at this time, Holbrook said. Ive benefitted from the year of experience. I have a more clear understanding of whats important and whats not. Hopefully, that will help us as we get the season cranked up.
The season gets underway with the start of full team practices Friday afternoon. The coaching staff will put the players through their paces with weekend scrimmages leading up to the season opener on Feb. 14 against Bucknell at Carolina Stadium.
At the end of the day, were still doing the same thing Ive done the last 20 years. Were coaching baseball and trying to put a good competitive team on the field, Holbrook said. Its hard to believe three weeks from Friday is opening day. Weve got a lot of work to do.
The team returns a solid nucleus of experienced players in four juniors (catcher Grayson Greiner, center fielder Tanner English, third baseman Joey Pankake and left-handed pitcher Jordan Montgomery) and two sophomores (second baseman Max Schrock and left-handed pitcher Jack Wynkoop).
Holbrook preaches, however, that a team must do more than play well on the field to succeed at the highest levels of the collegiate game.
The difference between having an incredible season and just an OK season is going to come down to the intangibles we create as a unit, the leadership we have, the commitment and the toughness, Holbrook said. The leadership and the chemistry to this point have been great. But its hard to say you have chemistry when you havent played a game yet. Its going to be tested when you go through a rough spot.
Greiner who played for Team USA last summer Pankake, English and Montgomery know something about weathering tough times. They helped play a role in USC bouncing back through the losers bracket in the 2012 CWS to reach the championship series against Arizona.
Holbrook knows those four want to get this team back to Omaha in their probable final seasons. They all are likely to be selected in the MLB draft this June.
This will be their team, Holbrook said. Theyve been here a while, and they need to lead us. They need to show our young guys the way.
Do I think were talented? Yes. Do I think we have the ability to make it to the College World Series? Yes. But some of our young guys have to grow up very quickly, because some of our freshmen are going to be in prominent roles.
Freshman right-handers such as Wil Crowe, Matthew Vogel and Taylor Widener, as well as junior-college right-hander Cody Mincey, must step up to replace key losses in the starting rotation and the bullpen.
Junior-college transfers such as shortstop Marcus Mooney and outfielder Elliott Caldwell will have to help plug holes in the everyday lineup.
The biggest question remains the closer role handled so capably over the past four seasons, first by Matt Price and last season by Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland.
They were experienced, and they pitched well and they closed out a lot of games. We dont have that right now. Now we have a lot of ability, but its unproven, Holbrook said. Whos going to get the last six outs? I dont know. And those outs are the most important ones.
Still, he likes the look of his second team.
We feel good about the core group of our team, he added. If they lead in a positive way, we have a chance to have an outstanding season.