USC Gamecocks Baseball

Stronger, more confident Hopkins and Cullen expected to shine for USC

South Carolina baseball preview: 3 storylines for 2017

The State's Matt Connolly outlines three storylines for the South Carolina baseball team heading into the 2017 season.
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The State's Matt Connolly outlines three storylines for the South Carolina baseball team heading into the 2017 season.

Gaining about 20 pounds in eight months might sound like a nightmare scenario to some, but for South Carolina catcher Chris Cullen and outfielder TJ Hopkins, it was what they felt they needed to do to improve as players.

Cullen and Hopkins contributed as freshmen for the Gamecocks in 2016, but not as much as they had hoped.

They wanted to get stronger before their sophomore seasons.

Mission accomplished.

Cullen said he gained 25 pounds, while Hopkins added 18 pounds. The players combined for two home runs last year, but should have much more pop in their bats.

“It’s definitely made me stronger hitting and arm-strength wise,” Cullen said. “At first I was just kind of slapping the ball around, but now, especially since I’ve been working with Coach (Brian) Buscher, he’s changing my swing. I’m using my whole body now, and hitting the ball harder and further.”

Hopkins hit .322 for the Gamecocks last season while starting 31 games.

One of his biggest assets, both at the plate and in the outfield, is his speed. Despite his weight gain,he doesn’t expect that to change in 2017.

“I’m faster now than I was last year,” Hopkins said. “That’s the name of the game. You want to be as strong and as big as you can. I think it’s really important to get in the weight room and work as hard as you can and eat right and all that good stuff.”

The pair should also be stronger mentally this season after gaining experience playing in the SEC and in the postseason.

Hopkins had several big hits down the stretch last year, including going 5-for-9 in the final two games of the Columbia Regional to help the Gamecocks advance in the NCAA Tournament. He expects that success to carry over.

“Right there at the end of the season last year, I was about as confident as I’ve been,” Hopkins said. “It kind of rolled into this season, and I had a really good fall.”

Cullen enters this season confident a breakout year is on the way after an up-and-down freshman campaign.

“It’s definitely made me feel a little more comfortable, already playing a season and knowing what to expect and knowing how to take care of my body throughout the whole season,” he said. “Putting on the weight as well, I’m just excited for this year.”

South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook is hoping for strong week of practice before the season opener on Friday.

The next step

A look at two of USC’s most improved players:

TJ Hopkins

OF, Soph., 6-1/190, Summerville

Key freshmen stats: Played 43 games (31 starts), hit .322 with 25 runs, five doubles, a triple, 1 HR and 26 RBI.

Chris Cullen

C, Soph.,

6-5/220, Cumming, Ga.

Key freshman stats: Played in 50 games (41 starts), hit .238 with 19 runs, 11 doubles, 1 HR and 23 RBI