Matt Connolly

Gamecocks anxious to begin play in nation’s best baseball conference

Dom Thompson-Williams and South Carolina open SEC play this weekend against Arkansas.
Dom Thompson-Williams and South Carolina open SEC play this weekend against Arkansas.

The Masters tournament is still about three weeks away, but the start of SEC play has South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook thinking about golf.

“Every weekend, every game, is a 490-yard par four,” Holbrook said. “That’s the best way I can describe it, with a lot of sand and water and a narrow fairway.”

Conference play in the SEC can seem about as daunting as navigating the greens at Augusta National.

Eight of the top 17 teams in the top 25 are from the SEC, including the top three in Florida, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.

The league is widely considered to be the best in the country, and it is hard to make an argument for another conference. Every team in the SEC has a winning record entering conference play.

“There are no off weekends this year for anyone in the conference,” Teddy Cahill of Baseball America said. “Other conferences have very, very good teams at the top but maybe can’t go as deep as the SEC can right now. I think it might be even better than a typical SEC season.”

South Carolina faces three of the better teams in the league right off the bat, opening with 15th-ranked Arkansas this weekend before back-to-back road series against No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 2 Vanderbilt.

Holbrook is aware of the challenge his club faces early, but he is also making sure his players do not look too far ahead.

“If you look at the schedule it’s difficult, and as a coach I’ve done that, but I’m telling my team we’re taking this thing one game at a time, try to play our best baseball on Friday,” he said. “If you lose a tough one, you can’t bring that loss to the park the next day. You have to separate each of those 30 games.”

The 30 league games will play a big part in what kind of season USC has.

Carolina is 17-2 entering conference play, but the Gamecocks were 14-3 at this point last year before missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

Holbrook said feels much better about this year’s club than the one that won only 32 games in 2015.

“We have a very, very comfortable locker room, and a locker room full of kids that love being around each other. That is a difference,” he said. “We’ve played pretty well. Through 19 games there have been a couple of games when I wasn’t very pleased, but that’s baseball. You can’t play perfect and great all the time.”

Florida has separated itself from the rest of the league and the country in the eyes of many national analysts, and Vanderbilt and Texas A&M are not far behind according to most.

Kendall Rogers of said other teams are capable of getting in the mix.

“I think those three teams are clearly the top team in the league, but it’s never a guarantee in this league,” he said.

Rogers said Ole Miss, LSU and South Carolina have a chance to wind up near the top of the conference.

“South Carolina really didn’t find its right mix until May of last year, and by that time it was way too late,” he said. “I think they’ll figure it out. I don’t think they’ve played great since the Clemson series, but I think this team will be ready.”

South Carolina vs. Arkansas

South Carolina (17-2) opens SEC play this weekend against Arkansas (13-3). Here is a capsule look at the series:

▪  When: Game 1 at 7:30 p.m. Friday; Game 2 at 4 p.m. Saturday; Game 3 at 1:30 p.m. Sunday

▪  Where: Founders Park

▪  Radio: 1320 AM Friday and 107.5 FM Saturday and Sunday

▪  Watch: SEC Network Plus (digital), as well as Bases Loaded coverage on SEC Network Friday.

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