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February 16, 2012

Vergason takes the field with shadow waiting



Chase Vergason knows it's coming.

The first time he charges a ground ball and lets it roll through the wickets, or a hard bounce smacks the heel of his glove and flies over his shoulder, or he throws wide of the bag, he knows he'll hear it. The Carolina Stadium crowd might murmur at first and excuse it one time, but it better not happen again.

The more times it happens, the more the chant may be broken out - Wingo would have had it.

"Yeah, I kind of figured," Vergason said. "Definitely planning on matching him, if not going over the top of him. I'll do my thing, that's the truth.

"Maybe I better plan on not making any errors."

That would be good. The comparison shouldn't be a factor, but it's only natural to look at the new guy and think what the old guy did. Vergason knew that coming from Brevard (Fla.) Community College as one in a long line of junior-college transfers to head to Columbia, he would be replacing somebody, and after spending two summers in South Carolina's capital with the Columbia Blowfish, he knew who he hoped to replace.

But man, what an act to follow.

Scott Wingo helmed second base at USC for four years. An offensive no-show for his first three, Wingo's defense was so good that he had to be on the field. Then it all came together in 2011, Wingo's bat helping lead the Gamecocks (he was second on the team with a .338 average) as they charged toward a second straight national championship.

In Omaha, it was Wingo's show. The ball he gloved that was straight up the middle, where he snared it on the rim of his pocket and flipped it backward so Peter Mooney could grab it and fire it on to first. The walk-off single that beat Texas A&M for USC's first College World Series opening-game win since 1977.

Most of all, the two grounders that he grabbed and fired to catcher Robert Beary against Florida, each nailing a runner and the last starting an inning-ending double play. Those throws are off just a hair, or Wingo can't get to them, the Gamecocks are suddenly down 1-0 in a best-of-three series.

Wingo, one of the most beloved players in school history for his scrappy mentality, non-sensical pre-game words and impish grin, walked into the Nebraska night last summer with his second national title and the CWS Most Outstanding Player award to boot. He'll be back at Carolina Stadium on Opening Day, throwing out the first pitch along with 2010 CWS MOP Jackie Bradley Jr.

And there will be another guy standing in his spot.

"I'll hold my own out on the field," Vergason declared. "They can say what they want. I want to have fun, get it done and go to Omaha and win."

Vergason took over the spot on the first day of fall practice and hasn't stepped out of it, although freshman TJ Costen has challenged him with a better bat and another freshman, Connor Bright, has also been in the mix. Coach Ray Tanner likes to have experience on the field, a big reason why he harvests the JUCO ranks so well, and after losing his entire middle infield, he reloaded with Vergason and another JUCO, third baseman LB Dantzler, to play around freshman shortstop Joey Pankake.

"He's always been in the lead, to be honest with you," Tanner said of Vergason. "The other two are good players and will play, but he's always been in that spot. I'm sure it will be hard for him to replace (Wingo), because he was there for so long. But he won't let that affect him."

The expectations are high because Wingo often made the non-routine look routine. USC was spoiled, in a sense, because it had such a dynamite combo with Wingo and shortstops Mooney and Bobby Haney, and it knew that any ground ball that got past them had to have some wicked reverse spin or voodoo curse on it. For his first three seasons, Wingo had to be good defensively - he knew along with everyone else in the state that because he was so awful with the bat, he better be good with the glove or his skinny behind would be on the bench.

Vergason, nor anybody else, may be able to make those plays that Wingo did so effortlessly, all borne from years of practice and games in the same spot on that same field. But all he can do is play to the best of his ability, and brace for the howls whenever that first ground ball skips by. It will happen - even Wingo booted a few over the past four years.

"The fans here are awesome," Vergason said. "I love them. It just gives the players on the field more energy to play harder and play stronger. All you got to do is go out there and give it all you got every day. Like (coach Chad) Holbrook said, the cream rises to the top and everything works out.

"I'm just ready for the season. We've got a great team. We've loaded up the gun again, and we're ready to shoot."

Even with one of the heaviest bullets still notching a groove in his position.

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