The South Carolina infield will sport a different look this season, although first baseman Christian Walker is the sole departure from a year ago.
Senior LB Dantzler, who played a solid third base last season, will move across the diamond to fill the void left by Walker, while senior Chase Vergason, who played second base last season, will take over Dantzler’s spot at third.
Sophomore Joey Pankake returns at shortstop, while freshman Max Schrock is the newcomer at second. Dantzler is ready to do whatever it takes.
“At this point in time, it’s all about winning,” Dantzler said. “If they think we’re going to be a better team and win more games with me at first, then that’s what I want to do.”
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Vergason is on board, as well.
“I agree with the shift, whatever I can do to make the team better, I’m down for it,” Vergason said. “I know Schrock is a great player, and we’ll be fine at second base. I move to third, LB goes to first, and it gives us a strong, strong infield.”
The Gamecocks begin the season Feb. 15 with a visit from Liberty, which is coached by former USC assistant Jim Toman. It should be a fitting day for a reunion, according to new USC coach Chad Holbrook, who noted a special ceremony is on tap.
“It’s not just a regular ordinary Opening Day,” he said. “The things we have in store and plan to do to honor (former) coach (Ray) Tanner, his success here, and his tenure as our head coach is going to be a memorable experience for our players, our coaches and our entire program.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see some new signage inside Carolina Stadium that highlights Tanner’s accomplishments and his former uniform No. 1.
Filling it up
The program already has set a record in season-ticket sales. With 5,747 season tickets sold, last season’s mark has been eclipsed. Fans continue to flock to Carolina Stadium, where the Gamecocks begin their fifth season.
Holbrook knows the top-notch facility is a big draw, but he also understands that success remains the driving force behind the crowds.
“We’re going to have to keep playing well for all those folks to keep coming back, too,” he said.
A new Christian
Last season, the baseball coaches didn’t keep football cornerback Ahmad Christian on the 35-man roster. Holbrook isn’t going to make that mistake again. He can’t say enough good things about Christian’s ability to help the team with his versatility and speed.
“He’s not just a football player trying to play baseball,” Holbrook said.
Christian, who’s a redshirt freshman, is excited about the opportunity to play baseball, even though he missed fall practice because of football.
“I’m behind a little bit, but I’ll knock the rust off the next couple of weeks and see where it takes me,” he said.
Although he’s a natural infielder, Christian, who was drafted out of high school, is ready to contribute in the outfield, too.
“I’m just trying to learn every position I can and see where I can get on the field,” he said.
Letting off the brakes
Holbrook was known as a base-stealer in his playing days at North Carolina, and he would like the Gamecocks to do more running under his command. USC, which had 44 steals in 71 attempts last season, has averaged 42 steals over the past seven seasons.
He looks at speedsters such as Tanner English, T.J. Costen, Graham Saiko, Schrock and Christian and knows this team can do better.
“We’ve got some guys who can really run,” Holbrook said. “I wouldn’t be a very good coach if I didn’t try to utilize their strengths. I think you’re going to see some guys try to swipe some bases.”
With three weeks to go before the first game, Holbrook must pare down the roster from 45 players to 35. It isn’t going to be easy, especially with Christian and fellow football players Shon Carson and Kwinton Smith in the mix.
“There are going to be some kids who need to redshirt based on maturity and strength and maybe not being quite ready yet,” he said. “The toughest thing is going to be getting it down from 38 or 39 to 35 because there are some kids who can really help us and play. I am worried about making the right call.”
He expects about half of the roster to be comprised of pitchers.
Freshman left-hander Jack Wynkoop is getting rave reviews from the coaches. He’s so polished that he might crack the initial weekend rotation. The 6-foot-5 Wynkoop, who hails from Virginia Beach, is ready to throw in whatever role the coaches choose for him, but he admits to thinking about being an immediate starter.
“You just dream of being a weekend starter in the SEC,” Wynkoop said. “If I were able to do that as a freshman, it’s something I’d be really excited about if they gave me the opportunity.”