It’s SEC time: New challenges await perfect Gamecocks

Posted by NEIL WHITE on March 10, 2014 

Jordan Montgomery pitches during the first game against Brown on Saturday, March 8, 2014, at Carolina Stadium.

DWAYNE MCLEMORE — dmclemore@thestate.com

No. 21 Rebels arrive with aim to put USC in the loss column

Things could not have gone better for the South Carolina baseball team over the season’s first four weeks. You could describe the Gamecocks as perfect – or at least as close to perfection as a team can get in college baseball.

With 15 consecutive wins, USC has dominated Bucknell, Eastern Kentucky and Brown while also sweeping their ranked rival Clemson. The statistical margins they have put up are staggering.

USC has risen to No. 1 in several Top 25 rankings, including the one by Baseball America. However, with the SEC schedule beginning this weekend when No. 21 Mississippi (14-2) comes to Carolina Stadium, the odds of staying perfect shrink considerably.

Nobody knows that better than USC coach Chad Holbrook.

“Ole Miss is not going to give a rat’s rear end if we’re 15-0 and No. 1 in the country,” Holbrook said. “They don’t care. That’s how it is in our league. You respect your opponent, but there ain’t nobody afraid of anybody.”

The SEC features five other ranked teams in No. 7 Vanderbilt (15-2), No. 8 LSU (14-2), No. 20 Kentucky (13-3), No. 22 Tennessee (14-1) and No. 24 Mississippi State (12-7). While Holbrook understands there are no guarantees on a weekly basis in conference play, he also likes how his team’s unbeaten play to date.

“It makes the guys feel good about themselves. They should have some confidence going,” he said. “That being said, I’m not getting caught up in the fact we’re 15-0. We only get to play 56, but we’ve won the 15 that we’ve played, and that helps us down the road,” he said. “It puts us in a better spot.”

Piling up as many wins as possible is important because the Gamecocks want to be a top-eight seed when the NCAA tournament field is announced. That ensures home-field advantage in the regional and Super Regional.

Over the past four seasons, USC has posted a combined 78-40 SEC record while winning two Eastern Division titles and one overall championship.

Holbrook doesn’t view this team as one that can win SEC games because of talent.

“We’re going to have to out-execute, out-play, out-hustle, out-compete – all those things – for us to have a good year in the SEC,” he said.

The Gamecocks also will need to stay healthy. Second baseman Max Schrock, who missed the Brown series due to an ankle sprain, and third baseman Joey Pankake, who missed Sunday’s game with a sore hamstring, will not play Tuesday against Furman, but Holbrook said he is hopeful they will be ready to play against the Rebels.

Those two are key players in USC’s bid to return to Omaha, and they are part of a veteran-filled everyday lineup that also includes a string of hot hitters in catcher Grayson Greiner, center fielder Tanner English, right-fielder Connor Bright, first baseman Kyle Martin and shortstop Marcus Mooney.

The pitching staff also is very deep, with left-handers Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop and right-hander Wil Crowe fronting the rotation while right-handers Joel Seddon and Cody Mincey anchor the bullpen.

Holbrook said he likes this team’s attitude and approach as much as its ability.

“We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ve got to get a lot better. We’re obviously not going to go undefeated. We’re going to lose our fair share of games,” he said. “But I like how difficult our team is making it on the opponent scoring. I like that trait. When we’re healthy, we’re pretty darn good offensively.”

But the good feelings – like the unbeaten record – aren’t necessarily going to last the next three weekends against ranked opponents in Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“Come Friday night, we’re 0-0, and I think our players understand that,” Holbrook said. “We’re going to be challenged in ways that we’ve haven’t been challenged yet.”

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