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January 27, 2012

Expectations again high as USC begins practice



Sitting at the table last year, Ray Tanner answered a flippant question about repeating as national champion. It had to be asked, but Tanner didn't use the word "expect" when he answered. It was simply not on the radar at the time, to "expect" a second straight national title.

But it happened. So when Friday rolled around and Tanner introduced another Media Day for his South Carolina baseball program, he got the same question.

About the same answer.

"I don't know about that," Tanner said. "We have expectations in this program. Players have it, fans have it. We're just going to do the best we can."

With the bar raised so high over the past two seasons, the Gamecocks are facing heavy expectations going into 2012. They began official team practice on Friday and will practice and scrimmage for three weeks before beginning the season by hosting VMI on Feb. 17.

Until then, it will be the same questions and wonders as last year - could they do it again?

Sure. Will they?

"I've never been one to talk about the future," Tanner said. "We don't get too far ahead of ourselves. I've always said, in our league, if you can get through the regular season, get to the regionals, you have a chance, because you're battle-tested. 2012's not going to be any different."

The Gamecocks have already been ranked No. 2 in the preseason by Baseball America and in the coaches' poll, and No. 3 by Baseball America. SEC East foe Florida, which USC defeated for its second national title, is a consensus No. 1.

USC returns its pitching staff from a year ago, although All-American closer Matt Price will be in the starting rotation for at least the beginning of the year. But the Gamecocks lost a huge piece of their success when their middle infield, the anchor of their defense, departed.

Seniors Adrian Morales and Scott Wingo, plus junior shortstop Peter Mooney, are all in the minor leagues now. USC is bidding on two junior-college transfers, second baseman Chase Vergason and third baseman LB Dantzler, to replace them, and will go with freshman shortstop Joey Pankake in the other gap.

"I'm feeling good," said Vergason, who has spent the last two summers in Columbia playing for the Columbia Blowfish. "We've loaded up the gun, and we're ready to shoot."

The Gamecocks return a lot of experience, particularly in the form of Price and fellow All-Americans Michael Roth and Christian Walker, and the veterans who might not be on preseason honors lists have each been part of two trips to Omaha. USC reeled in the No. 1 recruiting class as rated by Collegiate Baseball and many of the new players will be on the field this year.

Still, Tanner knows that there may be some who judge his 2012 team strictly on how it does at the end of the year. It's tough to get to Omaha every season - while USC has had a magnificent run in the past two years, it's not to the level of a Texas or a Florida State - and Tanner knows that.

If the Gamecocks don't win a third crown, there may be some who judge the year a failure. But that will be decided far into the future, and Tanner, as he said, is not into discussing what could happen.

Only what will. And what was, on Friday, was him getting to see his team as one on the field again after a six-week fall practice session and offseason workouts.

"I have to hide a little emotion today, getting back with our team for the first time," Tanner said. "Do we have a good team? I think we do. That being said, it will be extremely difficult."

NOTES

* Erik Payne has been catching some as well as playing third base. He is unlikely to oust Dantzler from the third-base role, so he has begun to catch as insurance for projected catching tandem Grayson Greiner and Dante Rosenberg.

* Patrick Harrington remains on the shelf after surgery on his shoulder. Harrington, who didn't play last year after being injured, can hit but he can't throw. Once he's medically cleared, he is most likely to see the field as a designated hitter.

* Nolan Belcher (Tommy John surgery), Tyler Webb (bone spurs) and Forrest Koumas (hamstring) are all ready to go after missing time in the fall.

* Tanner Lovick, who was arrested and subsequently suspended on Jan. 15, is back with the team and was practicing on Friday. Lovick is a backup at second base and short, and if he is further punished during the year, it will be handled internally.

* Ahmad Christian has joined the team after expressing an interest during January. He is doing well, but is unlikely to make the final roster due to not being around for fall practice. Christian, who redshirted as a cornerback for the football team, was drafted in the final rounds last year.

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