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June 13, 2014

2015 Outfield: Young guns

With Tanner English in center, Connor Bright in right and Elliott Caldwell in left, South Carolina's offense looked set for 2014.

For about five minutes.

Injuries upon injuries took their toll as the season progressed, and while English was the lone stalwart, starting all 62 games along with first baseman Kyle Martin, the corner spots were manned by a platoon after Caldwell (30 starts in left) and Bright (37 starts) went out, including Patrick Harrington (13 starts in left, three in right), Gene Cone (eight starts in left, 18 in right) and Joey Pankake (seven starts in left).

With English gone to the majors (Minnesota Twins, 11th round), the 2015 South Carolina outfield is literally wide open, though the one name most easily penciled in as a starter is Bright back in right field.

Center field will come down to two players - rising sophomore Cone, who came on at the end of last season with clutch hitting down the stretch and plus defense, and incoming freshman Clark Scolamiero of Greenville High School.

Like English before him, Scolamiero is a speedster with all the natural instincts you hope for in a center fielder. He also possesses the kind of smarts you want as a coach's son - his father, Steve, was his middle- and high-school coach, though Steve has stepped down to focus on watching his son play from the stands.

Though thin as a rail and looking every bit like a freshman afraid of the weight room, Cone battled like a savvy senior at the plate and made contact with the ball as well as anyone on the team, playing a gutsy, heady brand of baseball that endeared him to fans and media alike. With a year under his belt (and a few more cheeseburgers and protein shakes, presumably), Cone will be difficult to unseat, though Scolamiero may have the sharper tools, quicker feet and win the job.

It's a safe bet that the loser of the center field battle goes to left, leaving a likely starting three of Cone, Scolamiero and Bright. Harrington should resume his place as spark plug, while Caldwell, who had begun to lose steam offensively before getting injured and whose defense was average when healthy, would be ready to fill in in a pinch, spot start here or there and add another bat to the bench.

"I'm comforted by the fact that we'll have Connor Bright back," USC coach Chad Holbrook said. "Connor Bright obviously is a fixture out there and he's going to have the opportunity to win the job in right but he's going to be pushed, too.

"I recruited a center fielder (Scolamiero) here because I knew Tanner English wouldn't be here next year. Scolamiero is going to have the chance to win the center field job. He's going to be pushed by Gene Cone, and either one of those who doesn't win the job can go to a corner spot.

"If Scolamiero and Gene Cone both deserve to play and we think they have the talent to play, then somebody's going to have to go to the bench. There's going to be some competition out there, no doubt about it."

Another possibility is that a ferocious infield battle forces either a talented returning player such as a Jordan Gore or DC Arendas or an incoming freshman such as a Collin Steagall or Jared Williams to the perimeter.

"It's going to be interesting to see; I can't play bur four infielders," Holbrook said of a 2015 infield that returns Max Schrock, Kyle Martin and Marcus Mooney and leaves Arendas, Gore and heralded freshman Madison Stokes all competing for one open infield spot. "One of those (infielders) here or there may have to go to left field."

Holbrook said he also expects a battle from Caldwell and Harrington.

"Patrick Harrington is back and Elliott Caldwell is experienced," Holbrook said. "So they're not just going to lay down for these young guys. "And Jared Williams, the kid from Gilbert, is an infielder but he runs like a deer and is a leadoff-type guy and he stands in the way of balls. He's cut out of the same mold as (former player Scott) Wingo was, but maybe more talented from an athletic standpoint.

"Well, if our infield's intact I need to find him a place to play because I love his toughness. I like some of the intangibles Jared Williams brings and some of our freshmen bring. I have to find them a place to play if they're one of our best nine players."

Holbrook does know one thing: come next year, the best will emerge.

"It'll all work itself out," Holbrook said. "We're going to play our best guys."

Projected 2015 outfield roster:
Connor Bright (Sr.)
Elliott Caldwell (Sr.)
Gene Cone (So.)
Patrick Harrington (Sr.)
Clark Scolamiero (Fr.)
Brock Maxwell (So.)



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