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February 11, 2013

Holbrook has 'difficult calls' on final spots

Monday began possibly the most emotionally tugging week of Chad Holbrook's seven-month tenure as South Carolina baseball coach.

Rules implemented by the NCAA a few years ago limit regular-season rosters to 35 players, including a maximum of eight walk-ons. Holbrook's difficulty is he has a greater number of deserving players entitled to wear the USC uniform in 2013 than the rules allow.

So, tough decisions await before the season roster is locked down on Thursday in advance of the following day's 2013 season-opener against Liberty at 3 p.m. at Carolina Stadium.

"The competition is over. The evaluation for us is over," Holbrook said on Monday on 107.5 The Game. "It's up to our coaching staff - and that starts with me - to make the final difficult calls. They won't be easy. We have more than eight non-scholarship kids that deserve to be on the 35-man roster. But I can't include everyone. I don't like it one bit."

Holbrook is expected to announce the final roster at a press conference on Thursday previewing the Liberty series.

"Final decisions will be made on Wednesday," Holbrook explained. "We have to sit down as a staff and make sure we take everyone's input and hopefully make the right decision. Not only for our team but for the kids as well. We have to do right by them, first and foremost. Essentially, we're down to three kids for two spots, and they all deserve it."

Moreover, Holbrook must also determine where and when to play a number of players that have earned roster spots, including footballers Ahmad Christian and Shon Carson.

At this point, Christian appears to be the fourth outfielder behind projected starters Graham Saiko (left), Tanner English (center) and TJ Costen (right). Saiko is a junior-college transfer from Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, but played his high school baseball in Newburgh, Ind.

Could Christian break through and earn an outfield starting job before the end of the season? Perhaps.

"Ahmad has been terrific since he came out," Holbrook said. "He's one of our toughest outs and he always puts the ball in play. He knows how to play. He's learning to play the outfield. He's an infielder by trade and he wants to be an infielder. We had a discussion yesterday and I want Ahmad to be an infielder, too.

"More importantly, I want Ahmad to play. I asked him if he wanted to be our number-two second baseman and not play or be our first outfielder (off the bench), or be the top DH, and play every day. I think his best opportunity to play is in the outfield. I don't know if he'll start Opening Day, but he is going to play because he's an extremely talented baseball player. I have to find him a spot."

Did Holbrook learn anything from last year's gut-wrenching decision to cut Christian shortly before the start of the season?

"Yeah, to keep Ahmad," Holbrook laughed. "And that's what I'm going to do. Ahmad is safe."

Because of a serious knee injury suffered in September 2011, Carson didn't try out for the baseball program last year. So, this preseason camp marks his first attempt to earn a roster spot with the Gamecocks.

The former Lake City High School star has proven a talented, although a bit unpolished, ballplayer after spending most of his past 18 months rehabbing from football injuries. Nonetheless, he'll be on the 35-man roster.

"Shon is a little bit behind Ahmad, but still an incredible athlete," Holbrook said. "He's a very good bunter. He can run. He's shoring up his defensive skills. He's not great in the outfield, but he can really run and make up for some of his mistakes with his athleticism. He's continuing to learn how to play. With more experience, he'll continue to get better."

The starting infield features three veterans and a freshman, with two of the returnees switching positions. Former third baseman LB Dantzler has made a smooth transition to first base, while Chase Vergason has shifted from second to third in order to make room for fantastic freshman Max Schrock.

How impressive has Schrock been since stepping on campus in August? Holbrook plans to hit the Chapel Hill, N.C., native third in the batting order.

"Max has been one of our better players since August, when we started fall practice," Holbrook said. "He's a very gifted second baseman, very gifted hitter and gifted athlete. He knows the game and plays hard. He will be a fun player for our fans to watch and a fun player for me to coach. He's a good player.

"Max is our second baseman going into the season and I expect him to be our second baseman at the end of the season. And he's going to hit right in the middle of our lineup. We're counting on Max to help us win right away."

Shortstop Joey Pankake has battled a hand problem (jammed finger) in preseason camp, but should be ready to go on Friday. He homered in Sunday's scrimmage and made solid contact on Saturday.

"He had a great camp and he played very good defense," Holbrook said of Pankake. "He's nursing a bad middle finger on his throwing hand. Playing shortstop is like being the quarterback on the football team. You want your quarterback to be a great leader. He has our players' respect with how hard he works."

Defensively, USC should be stout through the middle with catcher Grayson Greiner, a double-play combination of Pankake and Schrock and centerfielder Tanner English. All four players have excellent gloves and possess rocket arms.

"We feel great about Tanner's defensive skills in center field," Holbrook said. "He can run with anybody. He can throw with anybody. He has improved as an outfielder over the course of the last year. Following in the footsteps of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Evan Marzilli is no easy task, but Tanner has the athletic ability and skill set to be as gifted a center fielder as any in the country. So, we feel good about our middle of the field defense."

Holbrook is comfortable with the three senior captains - Nolan Belcher, Patrick Sullivan and Dantzler - but acknowledges they won't be the only leaders on the Gamecocks as they seek their fourth straight trip to the national championship series.

"We have other guys that can lead too," Holbrook said. "Guys like Colby Holmes, Forrest Koumas and Tyler Webb have pitched on the big stage. We have some guys that have won national championships. I feel good about our experience and our leadership.

"The true leaders will step up as we get underway here and face some of the challenges in front of us. When your leaders are your best players, that's a good thing."

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