Gene Cone grew up a South Carolina fan, so when the Columbia native and Spring Valley standout was offered a scholarship by USC coach Chad Holbrook, the freshman from just down the street knew immediately where he would play his college baseball.
Holbrook is glad he did.
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Continuing his recent surge at the plate, Cone delivered the biggest hit of Friday night's 9-3 series-opening victory over Alabama at Carolina Stadium by dropping a two-out, bases-clearing triple inches fair down the right field line to cap a four-run fourth inning that gave the Gamecocks the lead for good.
Batting second in the order for the fourth time this season, the triple occurred in Cone's only official at-bat of the night as the true freshman walked three times and scored a run in four plate appearances.
"We had an opportunity in the game to make a play and he made it," Holbrook said afterwards. "It helped us win the game. It was a big at-bat in a big game on Friday night in the league."
Connor Bright's return to the starting lineup (he was lifted in the middle of the game due to 'sickness' shortly after striking out feebly) pushed Cone to left field, where he started in place of the injured Elliott Caldwell. But the latter eventually replaced Bright and Cone moved from left to right.
In his last three SEC games, Cone has delivered a game-tying RBI double in the top of the ninth of Game 2 at Auburn, the eventual game-winning sacrifice fly in the top of the eighth inning in the rubber game on the Plains and Friday night's 3-run triple.
"Gene Cone continues to play impressive baseball," Holbrook said after USC's sixth straight victory over Alabama dating back to 2011. "He was on-base every time (Friday night). I felt (Friday's game) was a big opportunity for Gene because (Alabama starter Spencer) Turnbull is very difficult on righties. Going into tonight's game, he had given up just 12 hits to right-handed hitters all year and they were hitting under .100 against him.
How soon before we see a section filled with 'Coneheads' at Carolina Stadium?
Cone's batting average sits at just .244 (11-for-45) after 43 games, but his innate ability to come up with clutch hits has possibly transformed him into a regular in the Gamecock starting lineup after playing sparingly in the first half of the season.
"Getting more reps, you see the ball better," Cone said. "It feels nice having the coach say I can do it out there over somebody else."
Junior catcher Grayson Greiner has been impressed by Cone's recent contributions to the cause as the freshman has emerged as USC's MVP during the current five-game winning streak.
"For Gene to be able to do that as a true freshman just speaks more to the kind of player he is," Greiner said. "Gene is going to be a stud. He is already a really good player, but he is going to be a stud. He works really hard, makes solid contact and has quality at-bats.
"He works pitchers and plays great defense. He's been getting big hits for us going back to the Auburn series. He has found a home in our outfield because he makes all the plays we need him to and he gives quality at-bats every time."
Cone was rated the No. 2 best outfielder in the Palmetto State a year ago by Diamond Prospects and the No. 13 prospect overall. He emerged in the fall as one of USC's best defensive outfielders when he topped the unit in assists.
"It wasn't a tough decision at all for me (on where I wanted to play)," Cone said. "I came to all the games when I was a kid and I've always wanted to go here."
-- If there was a 'teaching moment' for Holbrook from Friday's game, it came in the top of the ninth when two bloops by Alabama hitter fell safely in short center field. The first was the result of a miscommunication between centerfielder Tanner English and second baseman D.C. Arendas. "That fly ball communication thing is a pet peeve of mine," Holbrook said. "We didn't execute that part of it. It's frustrating because we practice that more than we do hitting. Maybe we'll be a little better at that tomorrow (Saturday)."
-- English collected three hits and two RBI from the No. 9 spot, matching his season high for hits. "Tanner is a streaky little cat," Holbrook said. "When he starts feeling good about himself, his hits come in bunches. He faced Turnbull in the Cape Cod League, so he had some experience against him. He got some good pitches to hit. We're a different team offensively when Tanner English is on base. I wish he would walk a little bit more and develop a better plate approach as far as being on base more often. But when he's on base, he wreaks havoc. He puts pressure on people."
-- Holbrook on why he kept Seddon on the mound in the top of the ninth even though USC was leading 9-2: "That team can hit. I wasn't comfortable enough to take Joel Seddon out of the game. Coach (Meyers) asked me if I considered it. I said, 'Yeah, I considered it, but these games are too important and you only get 30. You're playing a team that can really hit. You have to win the first one before you can win the series. I didn't want to take him out of the game."
SEC SCORES (Fri. April 25):
South Carolina 9, Alabama 3 (Gamecocks lead 1-0)
Ole Miss 12, Kentucky 4 (Rebels lead 1-0)
Florida 7, Missouri 1 (Gators lead 1-0)
Miss. State 5. Texas A&M 1 (Conclusion of Game 1)
Texas A&M 6, Miss. State 3 (Series tied 1-1)
Auburn 2, Arkansas 1 (Tigers lead 1-0)
LSU 8, Tennessee 7 (Tigers lead 1-0)
Georgia at Vanderbilt (Game 1 suspended)
SEC EAST STANDINGS: Florida 13-6, USC 11-8, Kentucky 9-10, Vanderbilt 8-10, Georgia 7-10-1, Tennessee 7-12, Missouri 6-13.
Note: Friday night's Georgia-Vanderbilt game was suspended in the top of the fifth inning due to power outage. Vanderbilt leads 10-0. Game will resume on Saturday.