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February 13, 2012

Healthy again, Matthews eyes big year

When Adam Matthews has been healthy, he's been at his best.

But last season was a struggle for the White Knoll High School graduate as a bothersome hamstring injury robbed him of half the season.

Matthews is healthy again after a painstaking rehab process - he bounced back strong in the fall and the momentum has continued into preseason camp - and ready to take over full-time in right field.

"I feel good to go, physically and mentally," Matthews recently said. "I've finally overcome everything and getting back the speed I had. It has taken forever. I'm excited just like everybody else about the season and I feel like I can go out there and give it my all. Hopefully, I can stay healthy the entire year."

On Friday, he'll take the field after being bestowed with a prestigious title shared with Michael Roth and Matt Price - team captain.

"It's a great honor," Matthews. "These (younger) guys have really trusted me. I hope to be their captain this year and show them the ropes."

When healthy, Matthews is one of the fastest players on the team, but even he acknowledges freshman Tanner English is a little bit quicker. With Matthews, English and Evan Marzilli expected to challenge for the three starting spots in the outfield, few balls hit by the opponents should fall into the gaps.

"That kid can run", Matthews said. "Back when I first got here, I could give him a run for his money. We have a good group of athletic, fast guys. We have a great all-around athletic club. It's fun out there running around. The ground we can cover (is amazing). Not many balls will drop."

English, a freshman from Murrels Inlet (St. James High), has impressed Matthews with his physical skills in the field.

"He's a great defensive outfielder," Matthews said. "And he's made a lot of strides at the plate as well. With his speed, he just needs to continue putting the ball on the ground and running. He has made a lot of progress since the fall. He's going to have a great career here. The freshmen have really come in and showed what they have to offer and showed their athleticism."

Hobbled by the strained hamstring, Matthews was limited to 34 games last season as USC won its second straight national title, compiling a .264 batting average with two homers and 14 RBIs in 110 at-bats.

Even though he couldn't play, Matthews sought to turn a negative into a positive.

"It was extremely frustrating," Matthews said. "I had to sit back, which is something no one likes to do and something I wasn't very familiar with. But I learned to work through it. I got some coaching experience being on the bench. When I saw someone doing something that had to be tweaked, I could help them a little bit. Hopefully, I helped a couple of guys out. It was frustrating, but I got over it."

But Matthews was healthy enough to score one of the most dramatic runs of the year for the Gamecocks. With a spot in the national championship series on the line, Matthews pinch-ran for Brady Thomas in the bottom of the 13th inning against Virginia in Omaha, Neb., on June 24.

Matthews moved to second on a throwing error by the Virginia pitcher before crossing the plate moments later on another throwing error by the same pitcher, when his throw to third base in an attempt to force Matthews sailed wide of the bag.

Matthews easily raced home to give USC a thrilling 3-2 victory that propelled the Gamecocks into a national title showdown with SEC East rival Florida.

When Matthews stayed injury-free in 2010 as a sophomore, he batted .307 with seven homers and 31 RBIs in 64 games (56 starts). Despite missing a large chunk of the season in 2011, Matthews was selected by Baltimore in the 23rd round of the Major League Baseball draft, but chose to return to school.

USC opens its quest for a three-peat at 3 p.m. on Friday when it hosts VMI in the first of a three-game series at Carolina Stadium.

Even though the Gamecocks will feature several new players in 2012, Matthews insisted the expectations won't diminish. Ray Tanner is well known for his "one day at a time" approach, but the goal for USC remains the same - get to Omaha.

"This is a great program and we want our expectations to be high," Matthews said. "We know what we're capable of doing. To have that pressure on us and for the crowd to want us to succeed at the highest level, that's completely fine with us. We embrace that and want to run with it."

Being a local product from Lexington, Matthews was given the rock-star treatment when he visited his former high school last week for the first time in four years and talked with some of the teachers and students.

His most popular possession? The national championship rings, of course.

"It was kind of surreal. It was a great experience going back and talking to some of the young students and telling them about how I've overcome some adversity," Matthews said. "God has really blessed me since I've been here. It's been a lot of fun."

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D. McCallum

South Carolina NEWS


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