South Carolinas junior class arrived on campus with great fanfare in the fall of 2011 as one of the nations best. Now fans are going to see if that promise pays off in a big way this season.
Team USA catcher Grayson Greiner is a preseason All-American, as is hard-hitting third baseman Joey Pankake. Left-hander Jordan Montgomery fronts a solid pitching staff as the Friday night ace. Speedy outfielder Tanner English begins his third season as a starter.
Fellow junior Connor Bright emerged as the starter in right field last season. Kyle Martin and Joel Seddon step up into key roles this season as first baseman and closer, respectively. Evan Beal adds depth to the pitching staff, while junior-college transfer Elliott Caldwell is the starter in left.
Theyre the backbone of our team, USC coach Chad Holbrook said. I feel good about how hard theyve worked and where they are. I wouldnt trade those guys for anybody. They have a chance to do special things here. ... Theyre our leaders, and well go as far as they take us.
The Gamecocks hope to return to Omaha this season after falling one game short last season after three straight visits. USC is picked to win the SEC by the leagues coaches and ranked No. 7 nationally by Baseball America.
We feel like weve been in the program long enough to know how it works and how its done. We feel like its our team to lead, Greiner said. These guys are my best friends. Were always together on and off the field. We eat together, we hang out together, we play video games and watch movies together. It doesnt matter what it is, were always doing something together. Thats the way it should be.
When the season begins Saturday at noon with a doubleheader against Bucknell at Carolina Stadium, they plan to win together.
I hope we can go all the way, Pankake said. Thats our goal every year, and we havent gotten a national championship since weve been here.
In their freshman season, they lost to Arizona in the CWS championship finals, and as sophomores, they lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Super Regional. They believe that experience will help them in what might be their final seasons.
Seddon, a right-hander who moves to the closer role, said he likes what he has seen.
Were going out there with a lot of confidence. Weve been together for three years now, Seddon said. Weve been to Omaha, weve been to the Super Regionals, and we know what it takes to get there ... Were a very tight-knit group.
A fourth trip to Omaha in five seasons would put a stamp on how good this class is. Greiner remains a top-notch defender with the potential to have his biggest season at the plate. Pankake will hold down the No. 3 spot in the batting order as he adjusts to a new position. Montgomery has shown his ace-like qualities with NCAA tournament wins against Arkansas and North Carolina. And English displayed flashes of brilliance in last seasons Super Regional.
If youre just a bunch of individuals out there playing, you dont feel as accountable for your actions, Greiner said. When youre playing for 34 other guys, who you consider part of your family like brothers, you feel a lot more accountable. You dont want to let those guys down. Thats when the team excels.
Holbrook knows these juniors will have to prove themselves if they encounter a few roadblocks along the way.
I want to see what they do going forward, Holbrook said. Theres going to come a time in this season in which adversity is going to strike, and Im anxious to see how those juniors say, Hey guys, everything is going to be OK.
And Greiner isnt going to let the team get too focused on whats down the road before it finds its way at the start of the season.
Were just going to take it game by game. I know its a cliché, but its honestly what we do, Greiner said. We prepared enough in the off-season to have a great season. We dont really look toward May or early June. But this team is very talented, and we have a lot of chemistry.