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January 25, 2013

Countdown to season begins today

Chad Holbrook has been waiting for this since July 16.

After all of the meet-and-greets, press gatherings, talks, discussions and a fall of watching his players work, the real countdown begins today.

Three weeks from today, South Carolina opens the 2013 season. The Gamecocks, recently christened No. 7 by Baseball America among a number of other Top-10 (and one Top-5) predictions, will take the field at Carolina Stadium aiming for a fourth straight appearance at the College World Series, and since they're so used to it, a fourth straight appearance in the national championship series.

Holbrook, in the captain's chair, has his first team just about ready to start on the journey to that goal. It begins today, with the first of three weeks of intrasquad scrimmages. After all of the off-the-field attention that has gone into the hiring of a new coach of one of the nation's most consistent winners, it's time to really start getting to the business of putting a team on the field.

Holbrook has been a major part of the success of the last three years, but now it's his name that gets the win or loss beside it. The next three weeks will be about how to add a lot to the former, and Feb. 15 will be the first chance to show how he can do it.

"I'm not Ray Tanner, and I never will be, I never can be," Holbrook recently said. "I'm not going to attempt to be. I'm comfortable in my own skin, I know who I am. I'm going to do the best that I can. There will be differences because I'm not the same person. But I've learned so much from him, too."

Tanner has appreciatively stayed away from the ballpark, tending to his duties as athletic director and mostly conversing by phone with his hand-picked successor. He's been very clear that it's Holbrook's program now, and doesn't want to be seen as casting a shadow over his protégé.

But Holbrook's imprint is already on this team, and has been since he was hired. Holbrook likes to challenge a pitcher, to run and take chances on the basepaths, to be aggressive in the batter's box. Holbrook, in charge of the Gamecocks' recruiting, deserves just as much credit as Tanner for getting a wonderfully talented group to Columbia year after year.

There won't be that much difference in USC's look. Players come and go, but the philosophies stay the same.

What Holbrook has to find out is how much he'll have to change his philosophies based on the talent that he has. While the Gamecocks return some veteran experience and leadership, the big three that were so much a part of the last three CWS runs (Christian Walker, Matt Price and of course, Michael Roth) are gone.

But it's not like that's a sudden departure. USC knew as soon as the last game ended in June that Roth was gone and Price and Walker were very likely to accept their draft positions. They've been working since then to step into their place.

Fall yielded some directions to answers and spring is about cementing them. The players returned from the Christmas break and it was evident that nobody was sitting still during it.

"We're up against the gun as far as the number of practices we're able to have," Holbrook said. "Trying to get as much work as we can so we'll be ready to go on Feb. 15. I can tell just from yesterday during the workouts that a lot of the guys put a lot of time in over the break."

Some of the biggest questions to answer:

* Will LB Dantzler switching to first base and Chase Vergason switching to third to accommodate new second baseman Max Schrock stick? "I think LB really does want to play first. He's very comfortable there," Holbrook said. "Chase is comfortable at third, and I like his experience and maturity. He knows how to play this game."

* Who takes over the corner outfield spots, since Tanner English is moving to center field? "(Graham) Saiko will be in left, Tanner in center, T.J. (Costen) in right," Holbrook said. "But Ahmad (Christian)'s factoring in there, and Sean Sullivan, and based on yesterday's workout, (Shon) Carson will be in the mix, too. I don't know what other teams have got, but I do know this - you put Shon Carson and Tanner and T.J., or Ahmad, Tanner or T.J., you got some fast guys out there."

* Speaking of Christian and Carson, are they set to make the switch from football, and how about Kwinton Smith? "Ahmad and Shon have worked. They've been in the cage," Holbrook said. "We're going to practice (Smith) hard this month and see. The thing he can do is pitch."

* Who are the projected weekend starters? "It's no definite that Colby (Holmes) will be our Friday-night guy or Jordan (Montgomery) will be Saturday," Holbrook said. "They may switch back and forth. Jack Wynkoop, we think the world of him. Who knows? Jack's going to throw a lot of big innings for us."

* Where will relief specialist Tyler Webb be this year? "He's going to be our most comfortable, our most experienced, probably our most mature guy out there in that spot. We're going to definitely start the year with him in that role (closer)," Holbrook said. "Does that mean he's going to be the closer all year? No. He could be the setup guy. We could go to him in the fourth inning, we don't know. He's going to pitch a lot of innings for us."

Other answers will be determined over the next three weeks, and throughout the season. Nothing's ever a definite during a 56-game schedule.

But it's Holbrook now making the decisions, not just chiming in. It's his call.

He's ready.

"It's Ray's team. It's coach Tanner's program. We did have some good players that were playing for us and they believed in what we were telling them," Holbrook said. "I'd like to think that we did some things well offensively and we recruited some good players because I got to make some decisions. (Tanner) taught me a lot about how to handle the wins, and I learned a lot from him about how to handle the difficult times.

"People want us to win, and that's why we like to coach here. That's not going to bother me."

The Gamecocks will scrimmage every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the next three weekends (Jan. 25-27, Feb. 1-3, Feb. 8-10). All scrimmages are at Carolina Stadium and open to the public. USC may add a mid-week scrimmage or two, depending on how the pitching looks.

This weekend's scrimmages are 3:30 p.m. today and 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

The roster has to be at 35 (27 scholarship players, eight walk-ons) by Feb. 15 (Opening Day). Holbrook has an idea of who will make it and who won't, but nothing's definite yet. The last spots will be decided over the next three weeks. "There are about eight guys fighting for four spots," he said.

The current 42: Click

What should be the general lineup this weekend and what would be the starting lineup if the season started today. Things may drastically change over the next three weeks but based on fall practice, this is what the Gamecocks like.

C: GREINER (Rosenberg, Harrington)
1B: DANTZLER (Martin, Celek)
2B: SCHROCK (Vergason, Bright)
3B: VERGASON (Dantzler, Payne)
SS: PANKAKE (Bright)
LF: SAIKO (Costen, Christian)
CF: ENGLISH (Christian)
RF: COSTEN (Saiko, Christian)
LDH: MARTIN (Schrock)
RDH: PAYNE (Smith, Iskenderian)


Closer: WEBB (Beal, Koumas)

USC's three captains this year are Dantzler, Patrick Sullivan and Nolan Belcher.


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