South Carolina begins preseason practice, along with the rest of college baseball, on January 25. As we count down the days until the start of the Chad Holbrook era, we take a look at the storylines entering the season. There are high expectations, once again, but there are also a lot of challenges. There are key components to replace and talented teams on the schedule. Today, with 10 days before the start of the preseason, we take a look at the reasons the Gamecocks will make it back to Omaha this year.
South Carolina is on a startling run of three-straight national championship appearances with two titles. Here are 10 reasons that the Gamecocks will make it back to Omaha, Neb. and the College World Series again this year.
1. Experience: Depending on how the final roster shakes out, there could be as many as 24 players on the roster with College World Series experience and there are many with multiple years. Given that the Gamecocks have made it to Omaha, Neb. the last three years - winning two titles - there are a lot of people in the dugout who know what it takes to make it to college baseball’s promised land and what it takes to get there. Even though this team lost some key contributors from a year ago, the majority of the squad is back and ready to make another run.
2. Depth: There are players on this team who may not play in more than a few games or pitch more than a handful of innings who could be key contributors at other programs. Given the level that South Carolina has recruited scholarship players and the talent level of players that will attempt to walk on, there are 35 players on the roster
3. Strong in the middle: Former head coach Ray Tanner always talked about being strong in the middle defensively. It has always been one of his biggest keys to success and sometimes sacrificed a bat for a glove at spots. This year, South Carolina will, again, be very strong in the middle. Sophomore Tanner English will take over in center field, which is a position he’s much more comfortable with. He has one of the best throwing arms in the country, has elite speed, and athleticism. Sophomore Joey Pankake certainly came around defensively at the end of the season at shortstop while freshman Max Schrock will be just as good at second base as any player was last season from a defensive standpoint. They key, though, is the Gamecocks have two of the best defensive catchers in the Southeastern Conference. The duo of Grayson Greiner and Dante Rosenberg is as good as they get.
4. A lot of arms: Depending on how the roster shakes out, there could be anywhere from 16 to 18 pitchers on the team. When you get any college pitching coach speaking candidly, they’ll tell you they identify their best nine or 10 guys and ride them at the key times. That number is just a little over half of the amount of pitchers who will be on the roster but almost any of the 16 to 18 could be one of those nine or 10. Especially when the second half of SEC play comes, the midweek games subside and postseason gears up, there will be pitchers on the roster who won’t see any mound time that could be an integral piece at many programs across the country.
5. Crazy athleticism: One of the attributes Holbrook has always looked for on the recruiting trail is athleticism. That wasn’t really the way his predecessor recruited. Over the last few seasons, there has been an influx of talented athletes who can do more than just bash the baseball. With the speed that Holbrook has to work with, there will be a lot more movement on the base paths this year. Not that the last couple of years have been different, but fly balls to the outfield will be caught. There will be so much speed in the outfield grass it’s going to be hard for the opposition to find a gap.
6. Preparedness: We’re talking Omaha, here, but to make a run in the postseason, a team has to be prepared. Outsiders can knock South Carolina’s non-conference schedule all it wants but the level of competition is so high in the Southeastern Conference that those 10 series, plus the three-game stretch against Clemson, is more than enough to be prepared for the pressure of the CWS. It sounds like conference homer-ism but there really are no bye weekends in the SEC. There are some programs that are up and down on a year-by-year basis but there are never any easy series wins. Missouri is going to have some growing pains in the conference and that could very well be an “easy” series but the Gamecocks travel there the first weekend of SEC play and the Tigers will look to make a statement. At the end of the year when postseason play rolls around, the Gamecocks will certainly be prepared.
7. Consistency: South Carolina has been a program of consistency since the 2000 season but it’s more than just that; there’s consistency in the players. Rarely are there key contributors who are inconsistent in their play. The Gamecocks put a steady product on the field on an every game basis. Rarely are there egregious errors or players who are completely unpredictable at the plate. When there is a player like that on the roster, they usually take a backseat until they mature a little bit more as a player. Yeah, Pankake had some errors last year. Sure, English struck out too many times. But those guys consistently improved over the course of the year. When the Gamecocks put a team out on the field, the coaches know what they’re going to get.
8. Brain trust: There is certainly a major change in the coaching staff this season with Tanner moving up to the athletics director position but it would be hard to argue that South Carolina doesn’t have one of the best coaching staffs in college baseball. Holbrook has been groomed to be a head coach and few realize just how much responsibility he was given last season as Tanner knew he was on his way out of the dugout beginning either this season or next. Jerry Meyers is one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball and Sammy Esposito has been ready to take this next step for years now. Brian Buscher, who brought the Columbia Blowfish to a Coastal Plains League title last summer, has an MLB pedigree, is a former graduate assistant, and has an instant rapport with the players. Even with Tanner moving into the athletics department, South Carolina still has one of the best coaching staffs in the country.
Even though Ray Tanner won't be in the dugout this year, there's still a great coaching staff and talented players putting on a Gamecock uniform, including sophomore Tanner English
9. Mental edge: This may go hand-in-hand with experience but South Carolina always seems to have a mental edge over its opponents. The last few years, which goes right along with this team, there has been a sense of belief amongst the players that they will win regardless of the circumstance or the scenario in the game. Whether it has to win three games in two days to make into the championship series in Omaha or whether it’s playing with pitchers in the outfield like in the 2011 season, this team always believes it will win, and that goes a long way to actually pulling off a victory.
10. Growing up: Personally, I’m on record with saying that the 2012 class is the best at South Carolina since Tanner took over the program. Greiner, English, Pankake, Jordan Montgomery, and Evan Beal all played critical roles last year. Heck, add junior college guys LB Dantzler and Chase Vergason in there, too. Everyone in that class is a year older now and that means the Gamecocks will put a more experienced squad on the field. Two of the most talented players in the class - TJ Costen and Joel Seddon - have yet to make a big impact yet. The 2012 class is a year older and ready to play even better this year than last.
Ten day countdown
10: Why the Gamecocks will make it to Omaha
9: Looking at the lineup
8: The best the Gamecocks will face
7: Why USC won’t make it to Omaha
6: Returnees that need to contribute more
5: Impact newcomers
4: Best series on the schedule
3: Three captains - are they the right ones?
2: What changes under No. 2 - Chad Holbrook
1: Changing of the guard