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January 30, 2012

JUCO transfers settle in

Throughout his 16 years at South Carolina, Ray Tanner has had several constants. Winning is one, winning a lot is another.

His constant mining of the junior-college ranks has also been a hallmark of his tenure, Tanner finding talent that has already had some college experience and bringing it to Columbia. Far more often than not, the talent is given a chance to succeed and does, Tanner's list of All-SEC and All-American players featuring quite a few names that began their careers in junior college.

As he takes the Gamecocks into the 2012 season, where they are expected to get back to the College World Series and are somewhat expected to win a third straight national championship, Tanner has dipped back into the well. Citing his want for experience when it comes to installing new players, USC hit the field for its first official team practice weekend with two junior-college transfers in key positions.

Chase Vergason and LB Dantzler resumed their roles from fall practice, taking over at second base and third base, respectively, and should stay there moving forward. Vergason is holding off freshmen TJ Costen and Connor Bright, but does have the edge of having played two seasons of JUCO ball (plus two summers of wooden-bat college ball in Columbia) and after Dantzler mixed solid fielding with three home runs over the weekend, nobody will be moving him off the hot corner.

USC will go with a freshman at shortstop, with Joey Pankake taking over the role in fall and playing well in his first weekend of preseason practice. But the two JUCOs on either side look to have him feeling comfortable from the start.

"Joey's an unbelievable athlete," Dantzler said during Friday's Media Day. "We're not too worried about having to help him out. He might be helping us out."

The Gamecocks' defense, particularly in the infield, was a huge part of why they were able to win their second straight CWS. The back-to-back games against Virginia and Florida were all the evidence needed.

But as 2011 ended, USC knew it would have to replace not just players, but experience. Shortstop Peter Mooney was the one who had been in the program the least amount of time, and he was regarded as one of the top JUCO shortstops in the country. Adrian Morales, brought to USC as competition for Scott Wingo at second base, instead settled in as an all-star third baseman while Wingo completed his legend with impossible play after impossible play, most coming in clutch situations in Omaha.

It's not easy to replace something like that, especially when the Gamecocks are also breaking in a new catcher (true to form, Tanner has a battle between JUCO transfer Dante Rosenberg and freshman Grayson Greiner behind the plate). But the newbies answered the bell in fall practice and continued to do so in their first weekend of preseason practice.

"It's the same mindset," Vergason said. "I'm definitely doing the same thing I was doing. I'm just trying to hold my own out on the field, get back to Omaha and win."

The two looked good around Pankake at shortstop during the weekend's three scrimmages, Dantzler throwing one ball low to first for an error but after he had made a one-handed charging stab of a scorching line drive and looked the lead runner back to second base. He made up for that by driving in seven runs just on Sunday, and Vergason also showed a good stick with a couple of spray hits from the bottom of the order.

Dantzler seems entrenched at third while Vergason has the lead at second, but is holding off competition. The two, plus Pankake at short, will play the next two weekends of scrimmages and then find out if they'll be part of the Opening Day lineup.

Chances appear strong that they will. And also that they'll not only continue the JUCO tradition, but the winning one.

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