As South Carolina baseball practice began Friday, much of the talk centered around new coach Chad Holbrook filling the shoes of Ray Tanner, and whether Holbrook can continue USC’s reputation as one of the country’s best college baseball programs.
The Gamecocks have already sold 5,747 season tickets, a new record, and plans are coming together to honor the past – and specifically Tanner – before USC’s first game, Feb. 15 against Liberty, when USC’s future under Holbrook will begin.
“It’s not just a regular ordinary opening day,” Holbrook said. “The things that we have in store and planned to do to honor coach Tanner, his success here and his tenure as our head coach is going to be a memorable experience for our players, our coaches and our entire program. We have something special planned for Ray Tanner.”
Holbrook also mentioned another important part of USC’s past, former player Landon Powell.
“Before I talk about our team, I do want to mention someone in the Gamecock family that needs our thoughts and prayers, Landon Powell and his wife Allyson,” Holbrook said to start his press conference, as he choked up a bit. “Their baby daughter Izzy is fighting for her life. It’s touch and go, and as many of you know, that’s a situation that’s close to my heart (Holbrook’s son Reece went through leukemia). As exciting as it is to get out on the field and practice with our team, our thoughts and prayers are with Landon and his wife Allyson.”
Here are the other topics that Holbrook touched on Friday …
** “I think it’s a group that’s a little bit more physically strong than we were a year ago. You don’t win a national championship in January and they don’t give you a trophy or a ring based on how good they think you’re going to be, but we do feel good about our team.”
** He isn’t shying away from expectations, or try to escape Tanner’s shadow. Instead, he is embracing both.
“Coach Tanner has been terrific in helping me with this transition. When he called me and told me in July, ‘It’s time for you to get home. We need to have a talk,’ I knew something was up. He has a way of giving you an incredible amount of confidence and belief in yourself. He does that with his players, he does that with his coaches, he does that with everybody he works with. The transition has been a whirlwind. It’s a been a lot of fun.
“As you watch our team play, from the way we carry ourselves to the way that we run on and off the field to the way that we practice, I think you’re going to see a lot more similarities than differences as it relates to my team versus coach Tanner’s team. Coach Tanner’s fingerprints will be all over our program. I think that’ll be easy to see. Unfortunately for me, I don’t get to lean on him. He’s not here to help me make decisions, but it is comforting to know he’s a phone call away. I’m going to utilize him as much as I possibly can.”
Holbrook even cracked wise about the big shoes he is filling.
“The good thing about being the head coach here is we haven’t been very good in the past, so no one’s expecting too much from us, right? Every time I turn around, the question I get is: Do you feel the pressure and expectations of following coach Tanner or living up to the success that our program has had in the past? I get that question all the time. But I don’t feel that. Yeah, I know our fans want us to be good. They wanted us to be good last year. My first year here, when we lost at East Carolina in the Regional championship game, our fans were mad as heck and I wasn’t the head coach at that time. No head coach is immune to criticism. I understand that.
“I have to stay narrow minded because if I look at all the things that coach Tanner accomplished, that our program has accomplished, that’s too much to even think about. I guess we’ve won more games the last four years than any team in college baseball (correct). I told someone the other day. This school has been around for 211, 212 years. We’ve won two national championships in baseball. I’m no math major, but I am smart enough to realize it doesn’t happen every year.
“But I know the expectations are: Hey, we need to try to get there. We’re going to try to get there. But I don’t talk to our team about Omaha, I don’t talk to them about the pressure of getting back to the College World Series. I talk about: Hey, let’s be good today. With that being said, though, would I be disappointed if we don’t make it to the College World Series? Yeah, I’m going to be disappointed.
“The anxiety level that I have right now is a little bit different than what it was at this time last year. The responsibility is mine. A lot of people care about South Carolina baseball and our program. It’s an awesome responsibility for the head coach. I have a responsibility to keep that tradition going. I don’t look at the expectation as a burden. We tell our players: Don’t let the burdens of your past be obstacles for your future. And I’ve got to follow that same line. I’m not going to let the expectations be a burden for me. I look at the expectations of this program as an awesome opportunity.”
** The Sunday starting pitcher spot is still up in the air, but Holbrook feels good about his first two starters.
“Jordan Montgomery and Colby Holmes have kind of distanced themselves as our top two guys. We feel good about Jack Wynkoop. He had a great fall. Very talented kid. (Senior) Nolan Belcher we think is back to pitching the way he pitched as a freshman before he got injured. Patrick Sullivan has been very good. Forrest Koumas is back from an injury. Tyler Webb is back obviously to help us out in the bullpen. Joel Seddon we think is better than he was a year and he’s certainly going to get a lot more opportunities.
“I think one of the strengths of our team is our pitching depth. We feel good about our front two guys. Don’t know what we’re going to do on Sunday yet. But I feel right now that if we played today, Tyler Webb would be our closer.
“There’s some competition there for that Sunday spot. We could start Jack Wynkoop there or we could start the weekend off with Jack Wynkoop in the bullpen as well because he’s so adept at doing some of the things that you like to have a guy in the bullpen do. He’s got a great pickoff move, he throws strikes, he can field his position. He’s going to play a prominent role but right now we don’t know if it’ll be on Sunday or in the bullpen.
“We’re blessed with a couple two-way guys. Curt Britt has had a terrific preseason for us, both in the bullpen and at the plate, so he’s a kid that can do a couple things for us. We’ve wall talked about (Joey) Pankake doing a little bit of both as well (pitching in addition to playing shortstop). I’m not worried about the depth of our pitching staff.
“Jordan had a great offseason. He’s gotten a lot bigger, he’s gotten a lot stronger, he’s put on some weight. His velocity is up. Jordan is never in awe of the situation, obviously. He’s a potential Friday night guy. We’ve got to keep him healthy, because he’s one of those lefties that knows how to pitch. I’m not going to compare him to Michael Roth. That’s not fair to Jordan. But Jordan can beat anybody on any day. He’s that good.”
** Holbrook likes what he’s seen so far from Tanner English trying switch hitting.
“It’s no easy task. On the plane ride home last year from Omaha, I let Tanner sit beside me and said I got tired of watching him strike out. Seventy-one times for a kid with that athleticism and that type of ability, that’s too much. I thought that switch hitting would be something that could help him not only immediately but obviously help him down the road. After giving it some thought and watching him perform this fall, I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s the right move for him and it’s the right move for our team. He doesn’t have to be a great hitter left-handed to cause havoc, as fast as he is. If he can just move the ball a little bit more consistently, hit the ball on the ground some, he’s going to increase his on-base percentage, he’s going to increase his opportunities to steal bases, which we want him to do.
“So far, I don’t know if you’d call it an experiment. It’s not an experiment. It’s something that he’s going to have to stick with. But there are going to be some ups and downs. He’s going to have some bad at-bats because it is new. It’s difficult. It’s not easy to hit a baseball when you’ve hit one side your whole life. He’s picking up something totally new. So it’s obviously a challenge for him, but he’s gotten more and more comfortable. He’s now popping the ball out of the park a little bit left-handed, and that upsets me all the time because I want the sucker just to hit it on the ground. But he’s gotten a lot better at it, and if he struggles a little bit too much, we’re going to make him bunt. Trying to throw Tanner English out when he’s bunting left-handed, it’s a taller order as fast as he is.”
** So will Holbrook try to install a more aggressive approach on the base paths?
“I think one of the things about our program is we’ve always been aggressive. Coach Tanner is an aggressive coach. I think I’m an aggressive coach. We’ve got some guys that can run, from Tanner English to TJ Costen, Joey Pankake, Max Schrock, Ahmad Christian, Shon Carson. I wouldn’t be a very good coach if I didn’t try to utilize their strengths. So I think you’re going to see some guys try to swipe some bases. It’s easy for me to sit up here in January and tell you we’re going to run more and I get out there in the course of a game and might get cold feet. Who knows? We’re blessed to have some foot speed and I intend to give them the green light and let them run.”
** Holbrook knows leaders like Michael Roth and Matt Price are not easily replaced.
“They were just as important in the dugout or the locker room as they were on the field. So obviously, big shoes to fill there. We have three captains that our players voted on – LB Dantzler, Patrick Sullivan and Nolan Belcher. They haven’t had the success on the field that Michael Roth and Matt Price had, but they have all the respect of our players in the locker room. You don’t have to be a great player to be a great leader. I’m not saying that Patrick and LB and Nolan aren’t going to do great things for us, but it’s tough to measure what they want to be able to do versus what Michael Roth did or Matt Price did. That’s not fair. I think our personality will develop as the season unfolds. That identity is going to be defined over time, through wins, through losses, through struggles.”
** Roth said after last season that he talked to Pankake about becoming more of a leader. At the very least, Pankake has to produce on the field, Holbrook said.
“We need Joey to have a big year. He can be an All-American type player. He struggled early defensively last year, as you well know. But the last 31 games of last season, I believe he made one error. He played terrific defense for us down the stretch when we needed it. He did it on a big stage. Playing defense like he played in Omaha had to be an incredible experience for him. We expect Joey to be a leader of our team. We’re counting on Joey. He’s the quarterback on the field, playing the position that he plays. We’re not going to have the season that we want to have if Joey Pankake has a mediocre year. He’s that important to us. We think he’s a terrific player.”
** Holbrook is also high on freshman second baseman Max Schrock.
“I probably haven’t been very fair to Max. I’ve put a lot of pressure on him just because I think he’s really, really good. If we played today, he would be in the three hole and that’s a heck of a compliment for a freshman. But the thing with Max is this: I don’t know look at Max as a freshman. Yeah, he’s a freshman in his first year in college. But he’s played a lot of baseball. He’s physically strong, stronger than most freshmen. He’s mature, has had a number of at-bats at a very high level in AAU ball and in the summers preceding his freshman year here. His experience is way beyond what a normal freshman player’s experience would be. I’m counting on Max to be a special, special player here.
“Any time you put a freshman in the lineup hitting in the three hole opening day, that’s the ultimate compliment from a coaching staff. I think if you ask every one of our players and every one of our coaches who should hit in the three hole, I think it’s unanimous that it should be Max Schrock. And that’s not because of what I’ve told them. That’s because of what Max has earned out there on the field during fall practice and scrimmages and working out. Is it unfair a little bit for a freshman to have those expectations? It may have been. But Max can handle it. Christian Walker handled it and he hit in the three hole for us as a freshman. I think Max Schrock can handle it fine as well. Bobby Cox didn’t hesitate to put Chipper (Jones) in the three hole during his rookie year, so I’m not going to hesitate putting Max Schrock in there.”
** USC will have a new starter in left field (freshman Graham Saiko) and right field (sophomore TJ Costen).
“Saiko is a good offensive player. It’s kind of funny how recruiting works. I recruited Graham to be an infielder and maybe help Joey out (at shortstop), but he’s kind of found his home in the outfield. I think he had two strikeouts in over 50 at-bats during the fall. Looks like a prototypical two hole hitter. Can run the bases, too. Stole over 20 bases in the summer with the Columbia Blowfish. He had a good fall. We’re excited about Graham.
“TJ is one of our better athletes. He can run as fast as Tanner English can. He can hit them as far as Christian Walker can. But we’ve got to keep polishing him up a little bit. He’s a little bit of a wildcard. He’s unpredictable at times. But he’s got awesome talent. If we can kind of corral him a little bit and help him stay within the parameters of the game, I think he can have a really good year for us. He led our team in home runs this fall. He can still some bases. We’ve got to continue to work on cutting down his strikeouts.
“That’s one of the things that I think you’ll see from our team this year. If we’re having a really, really good year, it’s going to be because our fast guys can make contact and put the ball on the ground and strike out fewer times than what they’ve been accustomed to. We have to improve that. Tanner has to improve that. TJ has to improve that. If our fast guys are making contact, we can put a lot of pressure on the opposition, just because of how they can run. A couple of these guys can score from first on a hit. Hopefully they’ll be patient enough and confident enough to take a walk. That would be valuable to us as well.”
** After getting trimmed from the roster in the final cut last season, Ahmad Christian, who plays cornerback for USC, will be on the team this year.
“I saw a lot last year, when he was with us last January. He hit a home run off Matt Price. He handled our pitchers pretty well. Coach Tanner and I often talked last year about the biggest mistake that we made was probably not keeping Ahmad on our team last year. I’m not going to make that mistake again. He’s too talented a kid. Now, he’s not just a football player trying to play baseball. Ahmad and Shon (Carson) and Kwinton (Smith) all were drafted out of high school. We recruited them all awfully hard. That being said, Ahmad is talented and can play second base, can play third base, can play any of the outfield positions. He’s very versatile. He can run. He’s got energy, he’s got bounce. Those are the things that excite me about him.
“Is he going to step out there today or in the next scrimmages and look like an all-SEC player? Probably not. He’s got some catching up to do. But it would not surprise me if come April 15, he’s in the starting lineup. It wouldn’t shock me at all, because I’ve seen enough. Regardless of whether or not he’s a starter or a role player who comes off the bench, he can help us win games and give us a lot of flexibility in late games, pinch running, put him at second base, put him at third base, put him in left field. You can do a lot of things with a guy like Ahmad Christian.”