By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
While the future is uncertain for South Carolina head baseball coach Chad Holbrook, so is the team that will be on the field for the 2018 season.
South Carolina will lose a big part of the team that finished 35-25 and missed the NCAA Tournament, including most of its pitching staff.
The Gamecocks entered the season with one of the best pitching staffs in the country and finished seventh in the SEC with a 3.70 team ERA, despite losing its ace starter and closer for part of the season.
It's top three pitchers — Clarke Schmidt, Wil Crowe and closer Tyler Johnson — are expected to be drafted in the first two rounds of the MLB Draft in June. Veteran relievers Josh Reagan, Reed Scott and Colie Bowers are all seniors. Junior left-hander John Parke may also be drafted.
On offense, junior DH Alex Destino is expected to be drafted, while junior third baseman Jonah Bride, junior shortstop Madison Stokes and sophomore second baseman LT Tolbert are each draft eligible.
"There are a number on our roster who have that chance to be drafted, and we'll talk to them when the draft comes and see where they are and see what their opportunities are, and we'll support them either way," Holbrook said. "There might be some that we want to recruit to come back, and there might be some that the opportunity may be the right one for them."
Holbrook said there are some draft-eligible players who have expressed a desire to return, though he declined to name them right now.
"I expect some to return and I expect some to sign to contracts, that's how it is every year," he said.
The Gamecocks will return its starting outfield of Carlos Cortes, TJ Hopkins and Jacob Olson, as well as starting catcher Chris Cullen and Riley Hogan, who took over at first base late in the season. Bride, Tolbert and Stokes might also return.
The biggest void will be on the pitching staff. The only weekend starter returning will be Adam Hill, who had an outstanding season with a 3.04 ERA in 14 starts. Cody Morris and Colby Lee, who had spot starts during the week, must make big strides to be weekend starters next year.
Holbrook feels good, however, about the 2017 recruiting class, which includes three position players who were high school All-Americans, as well as 12 pitchers. Some of those might get drafted, of course, and choose to go pro. The pitching prospects include Liberty High School's Logan Chapman, the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of South Carolina, and three junior college pitchers from Spartanburg Methodist.
"We are totally excited about the pitchers we have returning and the pitchers we have coming in," Holbrook said Tuesday. "We have some Gatorade Players of the Year coming in, we have some junior college All-American types coming in. We have a number of arms coming in."
Holbrook compared next season to 2015, when he had a completely new pitching staff.
"People didn't know who Clarke Schmidt was and who Braden Webb was and who Adam Hill was," he said. "We have some of those guys waiting in the wings to show up here and show that they are pretty darn good. I am extremely excited about our pitching staff next year … and I am excited about the team that is going to be on the field here."
The big question, of course, is who will be coaching those players. If Holbrook returns, there may also be some changes on the coaching staff.
The 2016-2017 team struggled in two key areas: hitting and closing out games. The Gamecocks hit just .262 as a team (12th in the SEC) and were near the bottom of the league in a number of offensive categories. They particularly struggled late in games, leading to 10 one-run losses and 19 losses in games decided by three runs or less. They lost eight SEC series in a row, but had multiple chances to win every series. Not only did the bullpen give up the winning run, but the offense repeatedly failed to deliver in the clutch.
Holbrook said every facet of the coaching staff and program will be evaluated.
"I'm going to evaluate every single aspect of the program. And obviously, myself and Coach Tanner are going to evaluate every single aspect of the program," Holbrook said. "I'll make decisions that I need to make at the appropriate time, and Coach Tanner will do the same in regards to the decisions that he needs to make.
"Everything is going to be evaluated, and it starts with myself, I'm the head coach."
Holbrook understands the frustration and disappointment of Gamecocks fans, who watched the team make the NCAA Tournament in 15 consecutive seasons before missing it in two of the last three. An assistant on the back-to-back national championship teams in 2010-2011, he understands that and knows he will be under enormous pressure again next season if he returns.
"I love the fan base at South Carolina. They want to win and they expect to win. That's one of the great things about this program. I understand their disappointment," he said.
"I totally understand, but no one is more disappointed at not playing this week than myself and our coaches and our players. We invest daily in trying to get to this point, and it hurts like crazy to fall short."
South Carolina finished the regular season 32-23 and 13-17 in the SEC before winning three of five games to advance to the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. to give it a glimmer of hope of making the NCAAs. Ultimately, the conference record and eight straight series losses were too much to overcome for the NCAA Selection Committee.
But Holbrook ends the season proud of the way his team played in Hoover and the way they kept fighting until the bitter end.
"One of the things I walk away from this year most proud of, there was obviously some negativity, and rightfully so that we had lost some series. But our kids showed up here each and every day to get better with a great attitude to continue to improve," he said. "The way they represented this jersey and this program and this university in Hoover, when a lot of things were going against them, is something that I will be proud of for a long time.
"… With all that was stacked against them, I will be proud of them for a long time for what they did that week. That being said, we are disappointed with where we are at, and I will do everything within my power to make sure we are not in this position at this point next year."