After one of its most disappointing seasons in the past 20 years, South Carolina baseball kicks off its 2018 campaign Thursday with media day at Founders Park.
In the wake of 2017, in which USC started ranked in the top five nationally and ended without an NCAA tournament berth, the Gamecocks have reset themselves with a coaching change, with Mark Kingston replacing Chad Holbrook, and one of the NCAA’s highest-rated recruiting classes.
But still, South Carolina starts this year unranked by most major polls and with a lot of unresolved questions. Here are the biggest ones to follow in the early going.
What will the pitching staff look like?
Besides from junior right-hander Adam Hill, South Carolina returns almost no experienced hurlers — nearly 70 percent of its innings pitched last year are gone.
That leaves Hill as the clear Friday starter for USC, and then a wide open race for the other weekend slots, as well as the closer position. Two potential candidates that Kingston mentioned in fall practice are sophomore Cody Morris and freshman Carmen Mlodzinski.
It’s gotten to the point that recruit John Gilreath decided to graduate from high school early and join the Gamecocks this season, with the expectation that he’ll immediately compete for time on the mound.
What impact will new pitching coach Skylar Meade have?
Related to the point above, South Carolina’s already inexperienced pitching staff hit a minor roadblock in November when longtime pitching coach Jerry Meyers announced he was taking an indefinite medical leave of absence and would not return to the program.
In his place, Kingston hired Skylar Meade away from Michigan State. Meade had a stellar three-year run with the Spartans, leading their staff to its three highest strikeout totals in program history.
This is his first time on an SEC team, however, and Meade has not had the benefit of fall practices to see his pitchers in action.
Which freshmen will step up right away?
South Carolina signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country for 2017 — Baseball America pegged USC at No. 5, D1Baseball.com had the Gamecocks at No. 7 and Collegiate Baseball ranked them third.
So naturally, some of these freshmen will have the opportunity to make an immediate impact. Of the 18 newcomers, including transfers, nine are pitchers, and that crop, led by the likes of Mlodzinski, Logan Chapman and Eddy Demurias, likely will get the most chances.
But some new position players could get playing time, including second baseman Noah Campbell, one of the highest-rated of the bunch. Campbell has earned high praise from Kingston, who’s called him “an elite player — not just for a freshman” and “the kind of player you build your program around.”
Who steps up on offense?
No Gamecock hit above .300 last season, and while Kingston has talked about speed and power being two attributes he values most highly on offense, no USC player cracked the top five of the SEC in home runs or stolen bases in 2017.
The most likely candidate to change that is sophomore lefty Carlos Cortes, who ranked seventh in the conference last year in home runs and slugging percentage. But other players like Jacob Olson, LT Tolbert, TJ Hopkins and Jonah Bride all are draft-eligible and need to step up their game to improve their stock.
All told, USC wasn’t horrendous at the plate last season. But it lacked a star to elevate the team and provide a consistent threat.
How will Mark Kingston define success?
For his first year at South Carolina, Kingston has a lot on his plate trying to bring this program back to the NCAA tournament, let alone the College World Series. And he’ll be attempting to do so against a challenging schedule in the toughest conference in the country.
So what will constitute a successful season for Kingston? Is it NCAA or bust? Is Omaha an unreasonable goal? What about 40 wins?
We’ll start to get answers to these questions and more beginning Thursday.
Greg Hadley: @GregHadley9