Opening Day: Juniors look to make mark in Gamecocks lore

nwhite@thestate.comFebruary 14, 2014 


    WHO: Bucknell at USC

    WHERE: Carolina Stadium

    WHEN: Saturday (DH), noon and 4 p.m.; Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

    RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM and 1320 AM will simulcast Saturday’s opener until 3:30, then 107.5 goes to USC men’s basketball and 1320 stays with baseball. Sunday’s broadcast is 107.5.

    NOTES: USC’s weekend rotation will be LHP Jordan Montgomery, LHP Jack Wynkoop and RHP Wil Crowe.

South Carolina’s junior class arrived on campus with great fanfare in the fall of 2011 as one of the nation’s 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.

“They’re the backbone of our team,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “I feel good about how hard they’ve worked and where they are. I wouldn’t trade those guys for anybody. They have a chance to do special things here. ... They’re our leaders, and we’ll 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 league’s coaches and ranked No. 7 nationally by Baseball America.

“We feel like we’ve been in the program long enough to know how it works and how it’s done. We feel like it’s our team to lead,” Greiner said. “These guys are my best friends. We’re always together on and off the field. We eat together, we hang out together, we play video games and watch movies together. It doesn’t matter what it is, we’re always doing something together. That’s 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. “That’s our goal every year, and we haven’t gotten a national championship since we’ve 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.

“We’re going out there with a lot of confidence. We’ve been together for three years now,” Seddon said. “We’ve been to Omaha, we’ve been to the Super Regionals, and we know what it takes to get there ... We’re 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 season’s Super Regional.

“If you’re just a bunch of individuals out there playing, you don’t feel as accountable for your actions,” Greiner said. “When you’re playing for 34 other guys, who you consider part of your family like brothers, you feel a lot more accountable. You don’t want to let those guys down. That’s 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. “There’s going to come a time in this season in which adversity is going to strike, and I’m anxious to see how those juniors say, ‘Hey guys, everything is going to be OK.’”

And Greiner isn’t going to let the team get too focused on what’s down the road before it finds its way at the start of the season.

“We’re just going to take it game by game. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s honestly what we do,” Greiner said. “We prepared enough in the off-season to have a great season. We don’t really look toward May or early June. But this team is very talented, and we have a lot of chemistry.”

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