Jan. 9, 2004
Columbia, S.C. – Coach Ray Tanner and his staff have reloaded with a recruiting class ranked as high as first in the nation that should meld with some key returnees to produce a 2004 baseball squad that is expected to continue the Gamecock winning tradition.
The 2003 Gamecocks won their fourth Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship in the past five years and advanced to the College World Series for the second consecutive year by sweeping the NCAA regional in Atlanta and the super regional in Columbia. The past four Gamecock teams have won 207 games, second most among NCAA Division I schools, and an average of 50.8 wins per season. In seven seasons at South Carolina Tanner has racked up 319 wins, nearly 46 per season, and he believes the winning tradition will continue. The 2003 Gamecocks finished 45-22.
“When we put on the uniform our expectations are to qualify for post season play,” Tanner said in assessing the team’s prospects following fall practice.
The recruiting class of freshmen and junior college transfers was tied with North Carolina for first as ranked by Collegiate Baseball and a close second to the Tar Heels in the rankings by Baseball America. That creates an interesting comparison since the Tar Heels are on the 2004 Gamecock regular season schedule after the Gamecocks eliminated North Carolina from the NCAA playoffs in both 2002 and 2003.
Tanner has a solid nucleus of returning veterans to form the cornerstone and will rely heavily on the newcomers as well to build a winning machine. Baseball America also tabbed the junior college recruits as the top JC class in the nation.
“We’re counting heavily upon those guys (the recruiting class) and with the combination of the veterans our expectations are to be good enough to continue play after the regular season ends,” Tanner said.
Two juniors who were key figures the past two seasons will anchor the pitching staff that must replace three veterans, all now in professional baseball, who combined to win 27 games in 2003. David Marchbanks was 15-3, Steven Bondurant 7-3, and Chris Hernandez 5-5.
Left-hander Matt Campbell pitched 83 2/3 innings with a 6-4 record and a 3.48 earned run average last year and gained additional experience with the U. S. National Team coached by Tanner that won a silver medal in the Pan American Games. Campbell’s two-year career record is 10-6.
Right-hander Aaron Rawl, despite missing more than a month due to injury, posted a 6-3 record with six saves as a reliever and spot starter last year. His ERA was 3.84 in 62 innings. Rawl’s career record is 13-5.
Those two, along with three junior newcomers from the junior college ranks – right-handers Billy Buckner, Jason Fletcher and Zac McCamie — are expected to make up the starting rotation with freshman left-hander Arik Hempy perhaps getting a few spot starts in addition to work out of the bullpen.
Another junior college newcomer, Chad Blackwell, is expected to head up the bullpen in the role of closer. He was voted the newcomer pitcher of the fall with a 1.69 earned run average. Blackwell posted 11 saves last year at Pensacola JC in Florida.
Buckner racked up 264 strikeouts in two seasons at Young Harris Community College. Fletcher was the Florida junior college pitcher of the year at Indian River CC while compiling a 12-0 record and McCamie garnered a 13-2 record at Seminole CC. Hempy had 20 strikeouts in 16 fall innings to lead the staff in that category.
Cliff Donald, who pitched 22 1/3 innings in 17 appearances last year and made eight appearances as a freshman, is a right-hander with experience out of the bullpen. John Gregory and Bobby White add left-handed depth to the bullpen.
Andrew Cruse, Harris Honeycutt, Dan Luczak and Heath Rollins and Josh McDonald are freshmen right-handed prospects.
Although drafted by the Chicago Cubs, Landon Powell returned for his senior season and Tanner is convinced Powell is the best catcher in collegiate baseball. The 6-3, 231 pound switch hitter batted .339 with 10 home runs and 61 runs batted in following a .292-12-53 sophomore season. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Collegiate Baseball picked Powell as a pre-season All America.
He was even more impressive behind the plate with a .994 fielding percentage and an arm that discouraged opponents from running. Gamecock opponents attempted only 49 stolen bases in 67 games. Powell is a team captain for the second consecutive year.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Mahoney is “vastly improved” and likely to get some time behind the plate as Powell is expected to be used some at designated hitter or first base. Powell caught in all 67 games last year and in 73 of 75 in 2002. Freshman Phil Disher is a third catching candidate.
Infield Last year’s first baseman, Bryan Triplett, has moved to third base. Sophomore Trey McDaniel started at first in the early going as a freshman and in 36 games batted .218 with three homers.
Newcomer Steve Pearce, from Indian River CC, led the team with a .455 average in the fall and could play first base if he doesn’t win the starting job at shortstop. Pearce was voted the newcomer position player of the fall. As noted above Powell will also see some duty at first base.
Second base is in good hands with Kevin Melillo, who was .317-12-43 as a sophomore. His 12 homers were second best on the team. He had a .968 fielding percentage and turned 34 double plays. The NCBWA and Collegiate Baseball also tabbed Melillo as a pre-season All-America.
Freshman Tommy King is a bright prospect at second base. Tanner says King “may turn the double play quicker than anyone we have had in the program.”
With the graduation of Brian Buscher, a third round draft by the San Francisco Giants, Bryan Triplett has moved to third base. Originally a middle infielder, Triplett played right field and three infield positions last year before settling at first base. He posted .311-7-47 numbers as a junior.
Tanner’s assessment of Triplett is “he will be a stalwart on our team.”
Freshman David Cash, a switch hitter who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, will back up Triplett at third base as well as possibly playing some at shortstop, as designated hitter and possibly at first base.
Sophomore Steven Tolleson is the leader for the starting shortstop job going into the pre-season but he faces competition from Pearce, the leading hitter in fall intrasquad games. Tolleson played mostly in right field as a freshman and had impressive offensive numbers, .302-3-19 in 139 at bats.
Michael Campbell started in left field as a freshman and his offensive numbers were .271-5-32. His nine assists were one short of the school record for an outfielder. He will be a starter again, either in center field or back in left.
Davy Gregg, a sophomore who was used primarily as a pinch runner last year, batted .375 in the fall and bids for a starting outfield job, either in left or center, depending upon where Campbell plays. Gregg is perhaps the fastest runner on the team and stole three bases in three attempts in 2003.
Junior college newcomer Brendan Winn is a power hitter and the leader for the right field position. An injury limited Winn to 36 fall at bats but he hit .389 with three homers and 12 RBI. Winn has been drafted twice previously and hit 17 home runs last year for St. Petersburg JC.
Senior Nick Gardiner started in right field or DH part of last season. In 35 games, 25 starts, he batted .253 with 11 RBI.
Steven Tolleson may also play some right field. Sophomore Mark Stanley, who saw limited action in 16 games last year, will play some, probably in left field or center field. Other options in the outfield include freshmen Steven Reinhold, a 13th round MLB draft pick and John Adams.
Senior Hank Parks started 22 games as the designated hitter last year and appeared in 37 games with .226-3-15 numbers. He’s a candidate for the DH role again along with several players slated for backup duty at other positions, among them Mahoney, Gardiner and Cash.
Thirty of the 56 games on the schedule are against 10 of the other 11 members of the Southeastern Conference, arguably the strongest Division I league in the nation. Mississippi State rotated off and was replaced by Auburn. There are also three game series with Louisiana State, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia.
“I think the league will be as good as it has been in a long time,” Tanner said of the challenging conference slate.
The non-conference schedule is highlighted by the annual four game series with Clemson, the “Battle of the Border” game with North Carolina scheduled for the Charlotte Knights stadium in Fort Mill, and a three game home series with North Carolina-Wilmington. UNCW made a strong showing last season in the NCAA regional at Baton Rouge and is coached by Mark Scalf. Scalf was an assistant on Coach Tanner’s staff this summer with the USA National Team. There’s also the usual home and home with The Citadel.
The Gamecocks will play 37 home games at Sarge Frye Field, 18 at the home field of opponents and the neutral site contest with North Carolina.