South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook hasn’t gotten over the disappointment of his team being eliminated from the NCAA tournament in the regional round, the program’s earliest departure since the 2009 season.
But he knows that he can’t afford to spend much time looking back.
“We have started work on the 2015 season, and we’re excited about getting that cranked up and that journey started in the fall,” Holbrook said.
The potential was there this season for another trip to the College World Series, as USC demonstrated in series wins against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, two teams that reached Omaha. But it didn’t come to pass.
“We want to play our best baseball in the postseason, and we didn’t quite do that,” Holbrook said. “That’s something that’s going to stick with me for a while.”
The Gamecocks, who finished 44-18 after losing twice to Maryland in the NCAA regional at Carolina Stadium to end their season, will not have the nucleus of their lineup back next season. Seven juniors were taken in the MLB draft, and six of them are signing professional contracts – catcher Grayson Greiner, third baseman Joey Pankake, center fielder Tanner English, and pitchers Jordan Montgomery, Joel Seddon and Evan Beal. The seventh, first baseman Kyle Martin, remains uncertain if he’s going to sign as a 20th-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels or return for his senior season.
“Kyle Martin is a big piece of the puzzle for next year, and he’s sorting through a number of things,” Holbrook said. “We want what’s best for Kyle, and if Kyle wants to come back, we’re going to welcome him with open arms. If he chooses to go into pro ball, we’re going to give him a big old hug and wish him the best.”
But if Martin takes his solid bat and standout glove to the pro ranks, Holbrook optimistic about the returning starters and a cast of talented newcomers. He sees plenty of veterans in second baseman Max Schrock, shortstop Marcus Mooney, versatile infielder DC Arendas, right-fielder Connor Bright and pitchers Jack Wynkoop, Wil Crowe, Taylor Widener and Cody Mincey.
“It’s not like it’s a whole new team. We’re going to have some experience back,” Holbrook said.
One key will be getting an injury-free season from Schrock, who enters his junior season as one of the SEC’s top players. Despite being limited to 35 games last season while battling a string of ailments, including a stress fracture in his back, he hit .299 with five homers and 20 RBIs.
Schrock saw a back specialist last week, and it was determined that he did not need surgery, just plenty of rest and physical therapy. Holbrook expects him to be 100 percent for the start of fall practice.
The recruiting class also has him feeling good. Pitcher Brandon Murray and shortstop Madison Stokes were drafted, but have stated they will not sign professionally. Holbrook likes that this class remains intact.
“Those we felt like we could lose we’re going to keep, and they’re going to start their careers as Gamecocks in August,” he said.
Other recruits who could have a major impact are freshmen pitcher-designated hitter Alex Destino, outfielder Clark Scolamiero, catcher Hunter Taylor, and junior college catcher Jared Martin.
“It’s going to be an exciting team and a talented team with a lot of new names and a lot of new faces,” Holbrook said. “But I think it’s going to be a team that will be able to compete with anybody we play.”
Stokes, who played on three consecutive state championship teams at A.C. Flora, will get in the mix for starting time at one of the infield spots with Schrock, Mooney and Arendas. Sophomore Jordan Gore and freshman Jared Williams might find themselves in left field.
“It’ll all work itself out, and we’re going to play the best guys. It is shaping up that we’re going to have a lot of depth in the infield,” Holbrook said.
The outfield likely will see Scolamiero battle with sophomore Gene Cone in center with the departure of English. But Holbrook says both could start, which could squeeze veterans such as Bright, Elliott Caldwell and Patrick Harrington.
“Bright, obviously, is a fixture out there, and he’s going to have the opportunity to win the job in right. But he’s going to be pushed, too,” Holbrook said. “If Scolamiero and Gene Cone both deserve to play, and we think they both have the talent to play, then somebody’s going to have to go to the bench. There’s going to be some competition out there, no doubt about it.”
Bright also could see time at first base if Kyle Martin leaves, with junior college transfer Collin Steagall also getting a shot. Jared Martin, Taylor and sophomore Logan Koch will battle to replace Greiner at catcher.
The pitching looks solid with the freshmen pushing for innings along with last season’s freshmen – Reed Scott, Matthew Vogel, and Josh Reagan.
“We’ll have some depth on our pitching staff and some of it will be young,” Holbrook said.
The coach remains convinced next year’s team could avoid the early elimination that this season’s team couldn’t.
“We have to get after it and get going,” Holbrook said.