Before Mark Kingston left the podium, he paused to deliver his own question to a room full of media members.
“You guys good?” the South Carolina coach asked, making sure reporters were fully satisfied. “OK, thanks.”
USC’s season opener (4 p.m. Friday against VMI at Founders Park) will be Kingston’s first in garnet and black. It comes eight years after he debuted as skipper at Illinois State and three years after he debuted at South Florida. The 47-year-old is a rookie only by Gamecock standards.
What’s different for Kingston as he approaches his third Opening Day as head coach?
Thursday’s scene, for one.
“We’ve always had press conferences,” he said, “but each step of the way, it’s gotten bigger and the volume’s gotten larger.”
Kingston led ISU and USF to NCAA regionals in his first season. That’s the desired destination for Carolina, which missed the Big Dance in Chad Holbook’s final year and hasn’t been to Omaha since 2012.
The 2018 version didn’t make Baseball America’s preseason top 25 for just the third time in the past decade. USC was pegged for a fourth-place finish in the SEC’s East Division. But Kingston-charged optimism still exists around the Gamecocks.
“I just think we’ve made progress in a lot of areas,” Kingston said. “I think our offense will take a nice step this year, but I also think our pitching has a lot to prove. Our pitching over the course of the year so far, from when we got here in August to now, I think we’ve had guys take some nice steps. And now we need to see if that will work against somebody else.
“Pitchers have made progress, I think the hitters have made progress. I’m just anxious to see how much progress has taken place.”
Junior right-hander Adam Hill will get the baseball Friday against the Keydets. Primarily a Sunday starter last season, Hill went 3-6 with a 3.04 ERA.
Kingston’s Bulls finished 10th nationally in ERA last season (3.24).
“Coach Kingston’s a big high-energy guy, and he’s extremely excited for the year,” Hill said. “He’s gotten us prepared, and he’s prepared himself. We’re all just ready to get out there and get in front of just the whole environment.”
Added senior shortstop Madison Stokes: “He’s fired up, for sure. He’s really excited. You can see it on the field and just talking to him, just how excited he is for this year to get going.”
Kingston said Thursday he’s going to stick with a more veteran-heavy lineup Friday and then mix in younger players as the weekend continues. After Hill, it’s righty Cody Morris starting Saturday and righty Ridge Chapman on Sunday. Junior college transfer Eddy Demurias is the closer.
“In terms of this opening weekend, there’s six (pitchers) I would say we know we’ll get a chance to see,” Kingston said, “and past that, probably four or five more.”
The strategy is unique to South Carolina by roster, but Kingston has stayed true to a coaching style that guided 270 wins at Illinois State and South Florida.
“We have a lot more resources here to, maybe, take some things to the next level in how we can work with our players and how we can be prepared for games, but the nuts and bolts of it are very similar,” he said.
Founders Park was sold out for the 2017 opener.
“I’ve heard so much about the atmosphere here – the tailgating, the crowds when great moments happen,” Kingston said. “I’m really looking forward to see that atmosphere. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
VMI at South Carolina
When: 4 p.m. Friday
Where: Founders Park
Radio: 107.5 The Game in Columbia area
Webstream: SEC Network Plus (WatchESPN app)
Projected USC lineup: RHP Adam Hill, C Chris Cullen, 1B LT Tolbert, 2B Noah Campbell, 3B Jonah Bride, SS Madison Stokes, LF TJ Hopkins, CF Kyle Jacobsen, RF Jacob Olson, DH Carlos Cortes