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Returnees have USC baseball aiming high

Ray Tanner entered the South Carolina baseball team's fall practice optimistic about his team's prospects for the coming season. He ended this week even more upbeat.

The Gamecocks, who lost by one run in extra innings to East Carolina in the title game of the NCAA's Greenville Regional last season, look to be a more experienced and deeper team from his vantage point.

"Compared to how we were last year at this point, our depth situation is much better on all fronts," Tanner said. "This team has a lot of those guys back, with a recruiting class that I feel very good about."

USC, which finished 40-23 and made its 10th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament under Tanner, brings back veteran star power in redshirt junior right-hander Sam Dyson (9-4) and senior first baseman Nick Ebert (23 HR, 72 RBIs). Both decided against going pro - Dyson was picked by the Oakland A's and Ebert by the New York Yankees - and come back to anchor the pitching staff and the offense, respectively.

"I know I handled the summer pretty good because I was looking at (drafted recruits) Wil Myers, Chris Owings and Brooks Hall and losing those guys," he said. "You take a shot there, but every day I was able to at least feel optimistic on getting Dyson and Ebert back."

Tanner also returns key starters in sophomore center fielder Jackie Bradley (.349, 11 HR, 46 RBIs) and junior right-fielder Whit Merrifield (.340, 11 HR, 49 RBIs), who have switched outfield spots from a season ago to allow the coach more flexibility if Merrifield is needed in the infield during a game.

Other set spots are senior Bobby Haney (.291), in his second season at shortstop, and senior Kyle Enders at catcher, a position that also will see fellow senior Brady Thomas get some playing time.

The positions still up for grabs next spring are left field - where sophomore Adam Matthews is battling junior college transfer Robert Beary; second base - where returning junior starter Scott Wingo is competing with JUCO transfer Adrian Morales; third base - where freshman Christian Walker has a good-enough bat to be a regular but still needs work defensively; and designated hitter - which features a trio of competing players in seniors Parker Bangs (.328) and Jeffery Jones and freshman Brison Celek.

Walker was the biggest revelation.

"He was everything we thought he would be and more offensively," Tanner said. "He was impressive."

Dyson and senior Blake Cooper (9-4) have locked down the top two spots in the starting rotation, but the other roles - in the rotation and the bullpen - are up for grabs.

Sophomore Nolan Belcher (4-5) and senior Jay Brown (3-0) will see significant action, probably in starting roles. Sophomores Michael Roth, Steven Neff and Jimmy Revan and freshmen Ethan Carter and Tyler Webb will push for innings in mid-week games and middle relief.

Bangs and junior college transfer John Taylor are potential closers. Of that group, Belcher, Roth, Neff, Revan and Webb are left-handers.

Last season, Tanner often felt he didn't have enough solid options on the mound. This year is different.

"Today, I feel real good," he said. "There are some choices down there."

Tanner believes his hopes are well-founded. He knows a good team when he sees one - his 2002-04 teams went to the College World Series - and this team looks competitive enough to make a Super Regional. He didn't always feel that way last season.

"Last year we had the chance to be in a Super Regional, and quite honestly, I don't know if we were that good. But we got into a position to almost get there," Tanner said. "This team is certainly talented enough to be playing at the end of the year. How far or what will happen, I don't know. But I personally will be disappointed if we're not playing at the end of the year."