Matt Connolly

Gamecocks are primed to make a run to Omaha in 2017

South Carolina fell a couple of wins short of reaching its goal of advancing to the College World Series, but – unlike this time last year – there’s plenty of reason for optimism in the program.

USC’s pitching rotation should be one of the best in the country in 2017, and while the Gamecocks will likely lose a few key pieces to pro baseball, a solid nucleus returns.

The pitching staff next season will include Clarke Schmidt, Wil Crowe, Adam Hill, Tyler Johnson, Josh Reagan and Reed Scott, while position players Alex Destino, TJ Hopkins, Jonah Bride, John Jones, Chris Cullen and LT Tolbert also will be back.

South Carolina signed a strong recruiting class that wasn’t affected much by the draft, and if USC can have another solid offseason, the Gamecocks should be in position to return to Omaha next year.

“I love my team that’s coming back next year, but you don’t accomplish anything with what’s going to be on paper. We’re certainly going to have a talented team. I wish we could start tomorrow,” coach Chad Holbrook said. “We’ve got a pretty good foundation to have a great year next year, but it’s going to take a lot of work and preparation, and I can’t wait to be around those guys.”

Here are five story lines heading into the 2017 season:

1. How will the pitching rotation take shape?

Crowe, USC’s ace in 2015, looks healthy and primed to have a strong junior season. He will be joined in the rotation by this year’s ace, Schmidt, and there’ll likely be several candidates for the final spot. Freshman Hill was in the weekend rotation for most of 2016, but Johnson, the closer this year, could join the conversation after showing flashes of what he can do as a starter by dominating UNCW in the Columbia Regional. Cody Morris, who missed this past season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, could also factor into the equation.

2. Will there be any surprises with pro baseball?

The thinking is that all of the USC underclassmen who were drafted will likely turn pro. I would be surprised if Braden Webb, Dom Thompson-Williams, Gene Cone, Taylor Widener or Matt Vogel return next year. The Gamecocks appeared to get good news as far as incoming recruits, as only Joe Rizzo is expected to turn pro. Carlos Cortes, the No. 27-ranked player in the country by Perfect Game, was expected to turn pro but announced on Twitter that he’ll be enrolling at South Carolina. Cortes was drafted in the 20th round by the Mets.

3. How will the middle of the infield look?

The Gamecocks were exceptional defensively this year with Marcus Mooney and DC Arendas up the middle. My guess is Tolbert, who played mostly first in 2016, will move over to shortstop, his natural position, and perhaps Madison Stokes will slide over from first base to second. Matt Williams, who hits two homers in minimal playing time, could also get a look at second. Junior college transfer Justin Row will compete for playing time at second and shortstop.

4. Who replaces Cone and Thompson-Williams?

The corner outfielders were two of USC’s best hitters, and it won’t be easy to match their production. Cortes has a chance to earn immediate playing time in left field, while Danny Blair, Clark Scolamiero and Brandon McIlwain could also get a shot in the outfield.

5. Can the team chemistry stay strong?

Holbrook got emotional during his postgame press conference Sunday as he spoke about how fun it was to coach this team and how much he appreciated their work ethic. South Carolina will need to again have strong team camaraderie next year as the Gamecocks try to return to Omaha.

2017 lineup?

Possible starting lineup for next season:

Catcher: Chris Cullen

First base: Alex Destino

Second base: Madison Stokes

Shortstop: LT Tolbert

Third base: Jonah Bride

Left field: Carlos Cortes

Center field: TJ Hopkins

Right field: Danny Blair

DH: John Jones

Friday starter: Wil Crowe

Saturday starter: Clarke Schmidt

Sunday starter: Adam Hill

Setup man: Josh Reagan

Closer: Tyler Johnson

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