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February 16, 2012

Opening weekend is here



VIDEO: Ray Tanner


WHAT: VMI (0-0) at No. 2 South Carolina (0-0)
WHERE: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
WHEN: 3 p.m. Friday, 3 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)
PITCHING MATCHUPS:
USC -- LHP Michael Roth (Friday), RHP Matt Price (Saturday), RHP Colby Holmes (Sunday); VMI -- RHP Coby Cowgill, LHP Campbell Henkel (Saturday), RHP Jeremy Brown (Sunday)

Eight-and-a-half months have passed since South Carolina celebrated the second of its back-to-back national championships at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

On Friday, the quest for a three-peat begins. The last school to win three straight national titles was Southern Cal (1970-74), but the Trojans accomplished that feat at a time when the NCAA allowed unlimited scholarships for baseball and the NCAA tournament involved fewer teams.

Since the current postseason format (64 teams with four-team Regionals, Super Regionals, College World Series) was introduced in 1999, only two schools (USC and Oregon State) have won consecutive national titles.

However, success in the past doesn't always translate into winning in the present, and nobody appreciates that concept more than USC coach Ray Tanner.

"I'm not one to sit down and go over goals and objectives," Tanner said on Thursday. "I don't talk about things like the SEC East, overall, postseason. I just talk about what we're doing in the moment and trying to be the best we can be. But I tell our guys to draw from the past when it benefits you. Other than that, you turn the page. You do the best you can and you hope you get to win at the right time. It's not complex for me and I don't think it is for them."

With three new infielders, a new catcher, a freshman in left field and a weekend starter who has been the closer for the two past years, Tanner acknowledges that the Gamecocks face some questions entering his 16th year as coach.

Among the newcomers is freshman shortstop Joey Pankake (Easley), a 42nd-round selection of the Texas Rangers in the last draft. Tanner has rarely started a freshman at shortstop during his lengthy coaching career, but he will on Opening Day.

"He has the ability to play there," Tanner said. "He has done really well and he has improved. He's a strong young man. He doesn't lack strength physically, he can hit a little bit and he can throw. He had to learn a little bit more about playing defense, but I think he has. Still, it's going to be a challenge for him. More importantly, he has to get comfortable."

Tanner's first task was slicing the 2012 roster to the 35-player maximum allowed under NCAA rules. However, the Gamecocks must have no more than 34 players on the active roster because freshman Mikal Hill, who was on scholarship, was on the fall roster until transferring to a junior college.

One of the roster casualties was senior outfielder Jake Williams, whose career at USC is over unless he is able to secure a rare sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA. Williams, on track to graduate in May, has been placed on the developmental squad along with Ahmad Christian and others.

Because he failed to make the final roster, Christian will fully participate in spring football practice, which begins on March 12.

Williams' departure hands the starting left field job to lightning-fast freshman Tanner English, although Winthrop transfer Sean Sullivan could get a look as well.

The other outfield spots will be filled by probable lead-off hitter Evan Marzilli and rightfielder Adam Matthews.

Matthews will likely bat second with Christian Walker third and junior-college transfer LB Dantzler fourth, giving the Gamecocks a veteran presence at the top of the lineup.

"I like where Marzilli is right now as an on-base percentage guy," Tanner said. "He had a lot of walks in the fall and during the preseason. I like him as a table-setter. He can run. I'll probably go with the older guys at the top right now and give Matthews a shot in the two-hole to see if he can move some runners along. And get back to his running form."

At catcher, freshman Grayson Greiner and redshirt junior Dante Rosenberg, who missed all but two games last season with a back injury, will share duties at the beginning of the season. Both will see action this weekend.

VMI's strength is a veteran pitching staff. The Keydets will start a redshirt junior, true junior and sophomore this weekend.

"We'll have a lot of different faces out there this weekend trying to figure out some questions we have," VMI coach Marlin Ikenberry said.

The mainstays for VMI are a trio of seniors - first baseman George Piccirilli (.332 avg, four home runs, 34 RBIs in 2011), third baseman Chase Worthington (.212), right fielder Jacob Morley (.295, two homers, 25 RBIs), along with junior centerfielder Rob Dickinson (.274, three homers, 21 RBIs).

The balance of the VMI lineup will largely consist of young and inexperienced players.

"We have a lot of interchangeable pieces at some positions," Ikenberry said. "We have some questions to answer. We're ready to get down to some warm weather and play somebody different."

ALL-TIME SERIES: USC leads 6-5
LAST MEETING: USC won 8-5 on March 4, 1998, in Columbia
STREAK: USC has won four straight.

USC'S PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP:
C - Grayson Greiner
1B - Christian Walker
2B - Chase Vergason
3B - LB Dantzler
SS - Joey Pankake
LF - Tanner English
CF - Evan Marzilli
RF - Adam Matthews
DH - Kyle Martin or Brison Celek
P - Michael Roth

VMI'S PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
C - Matt Winn
1B - George Piccirilli
2B - Thomas Stallings or Nick Dwyer
3B - Chase Worthington
SS - Michael Donovan or Drew Bryan or Cody Holder
LF - Jordan Tarsovich
CF - Rob Dickinson
RF - Jacob Morley
DH - TBA
P - Coby Cowgill

NEXT FIVE GAMES:
Feb. 17 vs. VMI, 3 p.m.
Feb. 18 vs. VMI, 3 p.m.
Feb. 19 vs. VMI, 1:30 p.m.
Feb. 24 vs. Elon, 3 p.m.
Feb. 25 vs. Elon, 1:30 p.m.

NOTES:
* USC is 81-38 on opening day dating to 1892. Ray Tanner is 14-1 at USC on opening day.

* USC has sold a school-record 5,580 season tickets. USC is 92-19 at Carolina Stadium since the facility opened in February of 2009.

* VMI's last win over USC came in 1922.

SEC BASEBALL SCHEDULE (Feb. 17-19)
(All three-game series unless noted)
Florida Atlantic at Alabama
Villanova at Arkansas
Missouri at Auburn
Cal State-Fullerton at Florida
Presbyterian at Georgia
Ole Miss at TCU
Washington State at Mississippi State
Northern Illinois at Tennessee
Vanderbilt at Stanford
Kentucky at Wofford tournament (Kentucky vs. Wofford, Eastern Michigan, USC Upstate)
LSU vs. Air Force (two games) and Alcorn State (at Baton Rouge, La.)

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D. McCallum


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