Latest Team Rankings
Free Text Alerts
|ShopMobileRadio RSSRivals.com Yahoo! Sports|
|College Teams||High Schools|
February 15, 2013
WHAT: Liberty (0-0) at No. 7 South Carolina (0-0)
WHERE: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
WHEN: 3 p.m. today, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday
TV/RADIO: Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 The Game in Columbia for all games (Andy Demetra, Derek Scott and Tommy Moody)
The Chad Holbrook Era is finally here.
The long-time loyal assistant and inexhaustible recruiter at North Carolina and South Carolina has waited seven months for this moment to arrive, since officially being named USC coach in July.
Looking for a fourth straight trip to the College World Series, the Gamecocks begin the 2013 season at 3 p.m. today against Liberty at sold-out Carolina Stadium in a matchup of top programs from the SEC and Big South conferences.
USC is expected to release the final 35-man roster this morning.
The opponent for this compelling opening weekend shouldn't be overlooked. Liberty has seen its program grow by leaps and bounds since hiring former Gamecock assistant Jim Toman six years ago, and the Flames return five position starters from a 2012 team that finished 41-19, the second 40-win season under Toman's watch.
Liberty has become the number-one nemesis of Coastal Carolina in the Big South, and the christening of a new ballpark in Lynchburg, Va., later this month should keep the Flames near the top of the conference standings for years to come.
"Coach (Ray) Tanner didn't do me any favors with this scheduling," Holbrook said. "Liberty is a tough opponent. They have our team's full attention. We know we're going to have to play well to win."
Before the first pitch is thrown, USC plans to honor Tanner during a lavish pre-game ceremony that promises to become emotional. Tanner handed the reins to Holbrook in July when he was promoted to athletic director.
Because most of the Gamecock players suited up for Tanner, Holbrook said that he'll probably have to keep their emotions in check.
"As much as they respect and love coach Tanner, they're not going to forget we have a game to play," Holbrook said. "I have to make sure they don't get too caught up in what happens before the game. It's going to be a special time for this baseball program. I'm more worried about them being too excited and not ready to go. Liberty is a good team."
As expected, USC will rely on a three-man rotation of sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery, senior right-hander Colby Holmes and senior left-hander Nolan Belcher. The 6-foot-4 Montgomery, who was 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA in 74 2-3 innings last season, will have the honor of starting Opening Day, although Holbrook considers the Sumter native and Holmes as interchangeable.
"I look at Colby and Jordan the way I look at Grayson (Greiner) and Dante (Rosenberg)," Holbrook said. "We have two starting catchers and we have two Friday-night guys. Nothing really separated Jordan and Colby. They've both extremely well since August. They both deserve to go Friday. Who knows, Colby might go next Friday. But we're going to start this way. We have complete confidence in both of them."
Together, Montgomery, Holmes and Belcher bring plenty of experience to the mound, combining for 69 starts and 408 2-3 career innings pitched.
Belcher is scheduled to take the mound for his 22nd career start and the third since the beginning of last season, when he returned to action from Tommy John surgery in 2011. He had a career-low 2.12 ERA in 19 appearances last season.
Holbrook senses that Belcher is 100 percent healthy for the first time since his freshman season in 2009.
"This is the first time we think he's back from injury, not only his elbow, but he had an ankle issue last season," Holbrook said. "Also, his confidence is back. We think you're going to see the Nolan Belcher that was given a weekend spot in the rotation back in 2009. We can't be more thrilled and happy for him. He deserves it. It's great to give the ball to a senior that's been here five years. Our players have the utmost respect and confidence in Nolan."
USC's probable starting lineup features a pair of first-time starters - freshman second baseman Max Schrock and junior-college transfer Graham Saiko (pronounced "Psycho").
What do those two players have in common? They shared Player of the Fall honors for the Gamecocks. Schrock, who signed with USC despite residing a short distance from the North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., is regarded as one of the most gifted hitters that the Gamecock coaching staff has recruited in years.
"I might put him right there in the three-hole," Holbrook said. "He is a gifted player. We're looking forward to putting him out there."
Saiko was less heralded than Schrock when he joined the program in the fall from Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, but quickly showed his abilities in the fall. He hit .342 with a homer and 43 RBIs in 48 games at TCC last season, and continued to impress after his arrival in Columbia.
"Graham has been a good player for us from the day he got here," Holbrook said.
Besides being rated the No. 3 high-school prospect in North Carolina, Schrock was rated the sixth-best newcomer in the SEC by Baseball America.
Erik Payne (.265, three homers and 19 RBIs in 2012), a junior from Richmond, Va., won the designated hitter job with an exceptional showing at the plate during preseason camp. In fact, Payne has hit so well against both left-handed and right-handed pitching that Holbrook doesn't plan to platoon him at the DH spot.
"We're thrilled how Erik has developed and played from early fall practice until now," Holbrook said. "He's strong, explosive and can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He's going to be right there in the middle of the lineup (Friday), possibly fifth, sixth or seventh. I don't have any plans on doing the right-left thing right now. Erik Payne has won that spot and I will certainly give him plenty of opportunities going forward."
Until now, Payne's best moments as a Gamecock have come on and off the field. His three-run triple with the bases loaded keyed a 7-3 victory over Florida at last year's College World Series. Meanwhile, he captured the prestigious NCAA Elite 89 Award given to the player among the eight schools in Omaha with the highest grade-point average.
USC and Liberty have not met since a 9-6 victory by the Gamecocks at Carolina Stadium on April 26, 2011. Liberty, which returns five position players and 16 lettermen from last season, was selected by the Big South coaches to finish on top of the conference's North Division in the annual preseason poll.
Not surprisingly, the top two vote-getters in the preseason poll were Liberty and Coastal Carolina, the six-time defending Big South champion.
Liberty returns a trio of .300 hitters from last season, including second baseman Bryan Aanderud, who hit .368 with two homers and 53 RBI and earned second-team All-Big South honors. First baseman Alex Close was the 2012 Big South Freshman of the Year after setting a Liberty and conference freshman record with 14 home runs.
ALL-TIME SERIES: USC leads 6-2
LAST MEETING: USC won 9-6 on April 26, 2011, in Columbia
STREAK: USC has won three straight
Today - LHP Jordan Montgomery vs. RHP Carson Herndon
Saturday - RHP Colby Holmes vs. RHP Brooks Roy
Sunday - LHP Nolan Belcher vs. TBA
PROJECTED USC STARTING LINEUP
C - Grayson Greiner OR Dante Rosenberg
1B - LB Dantzler
2B - Max Schrock
3B - Chase Vergason
SS - Joey Pankake
LF - Graham Saiko
CF - Tanner English
RF - TJ Costen
DH - Erik Payne
South Carolina NEWS