The South Carolina baseball team won the SEC East last year and advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals for the 12th time in the past 16 years.
It has a great shot to match that record this season, and possibly return to the College World Series for the 12th time.
The Gamecocks return a deep and talented roster, including five players who have received preseason All-American recognition. It's top pitcher was an All-American last year, and three players made the Freshman All-SEC team.
Three pitchers are considered potential first-round draft choices as USC features one of the most talented and experienced pitching staffs in the nation.
Here's a look at the starters and key players for the 2017 season:
Matt Williams, 1B — Earned accolades from Coach Holbrook after outstanding fall; can play anywhere on infield but will open at 1B; played in 18 games as a sophomore; hit. .240 with two home runs, two RBI and three runs scored; expected to have breakout year.
LT Tolbert, 2B — 2016 Freshman All-SEC; versatile player who can play all over the infield; played first base last year but will open at second this year; left-handed hitter that coaching staff is expecting big things out of; hit .229 with three homers, 27 RBI and 32 runs scored in 55 games last year; had big games against both Duke and Rhode Island in NCAA Regional.
Madison Stokes, SS — Had an outstanding fall to win shortstop job; missed first half of 2016 with an injury; played in 31 games with 29 starts as a sophomore; hit .304 with one home run, 12 RBI and 16 runs scored; went 3-for-4 with three runs scored in NCAA Regional against UNC-Wilmington; went 7-for-9 with three doubles in three-game series against Alabama.
Jonah Bride, 3B — A junior college transfer, Bride is a slick-field third baseman who committed just three errors last year; .975 field percentage led the team; started 63 of 64 games and hit .283 with two home runs, 32 RBI and 41 runs scored; good situational hitter who is considered a coach on the field; could hit at top or in middle of lineup; went 4-for-5 with two doubles and five RBI against The Citadel.
Alex Destino, LF — Dangerous hitter who will hit in the middle of the order and anchor the Gamecock lineup; preseason all-SEC selection; powerful hitter who led the team with 10 home runs and 59 RBI while batting .321 as a sophomore; played first base and left field, but will play mostly in the OF in 2016; made the NCAA Regional All-Tournament team; rated No. 48 college draft prospect by Perfect Game.
TJ Hopkins, CF/RF — One of the team's best athletes and fastest players, Hopkins is expected to start in the OF and hit at the top of the order; considered one of the team's most improved players from last year; has good combination of both power and speed; named to Freshman All-SEC team; hit .322 with 26 RBI and 25 runs scored in 43 games.
Danny Blair, CF — One of the fastest players on the team and a potential everyday player after an outstanding fall; started six games last year and played in 22; appeared in several games as a pinch runner; hit .250 with eight runs scored and four RBI; went 3-for-5 in game against Penn State.
Chris Cullen, C/DH — Poised for a big year after leading the team in extra-base hits in the fall; considered the team's most improved player; expected to hit in the middle of the order; a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2016, Cullen hit .238 with 23 RBI and 19 runs scored; a strong defensive catcher and an asset to pitching staff with his game-calling skills.
John Jones, C/DH — An explosive hitter capable of carrying a team; had a huge first half last season; won National Player of the Week after going 8-for-8 with two home runs and 10 RBI in Penn State series, reaching base all 14 times; SEC Player of the Week after batting .500 with two home runs and five RBI against Arkansas; played 60 games with 55 starts; a switch-hitter, hit .269 with seven home runs, 49 RBI and 36 runs scored; coming off strong fall and is expected to hit in the middle of the Gamecock order.
Carlos Cortes, OF-IF — Considered one of the best high-school hitters in the country; could be an everyday player in left field, at second base or DH; an ambidextrous thrower who throws right-handed when he plays the infield and left-handed in the outfield; played in the 2015 Perfect Game All-American Classic.
Brandon McIlwain, OF — One of the most intriguing players on the team, the two-sport star could have a big impact if he can work his way into the lineup; explosive athlete who started three games at QB for Gamecock football team; big question is whether he will return to football in the spring, or stick with baseball; got just 10 at-bats last year after joining the team in the spring; first career hit came in a 16-4 win over The Citadel; could get some playing time in right field; was named the No. 16 high school draft prospect in 2016 by Baseball America.
Clarke Schmidt — A third-team All-American and second-team All-SEC, Schmidt enters his junior season as one of the top pitchers in the nation; went 9-5 with a 3.40 ERA in 111.1 innings last year and was sixth in the nation in strikeouts with 129; threw a complete game with 10 strikeouts in 3-1 win at Georgia; struck out nine in eight scoreless innings in an 8-1 win over Clemson; named to Golden Spikes Watch List at midseason, and Pitcher of the Year Watch List; rated No. 21 college draft prospect by D1 Baseball.
Will Crowe — 2014 Freshman All-American who missed all of 2016 after Tommy John surgery; pitched well in the summer and fall and is expected to be back to full strength; will start the year as South Carolina's No. 2 starter; went 8-3 with a 2.75 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 91.2 innings as a freshman; was 3-4 with 4.91 ERA in nine games in 2015 before having surgery and missing rest of the season; has great mound presence and is considered one of the top pitchers in the country; rated the No. 18 college draft prospect by Perfect Game.
Adam Hill — A Freshman All-American and Freshman All-SEC last year; slotted as the No. 3 starter after going 7-0 with a 3.53 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 66.1 innings; has increased size and strength and has better command of his pitches after an outstanding fall; great life to his fastball and improved off-speed stuff; allowed just two runs on three hits with six strikeouts in 23-2 win over Rhode Island in NCAA Regional.
Josh Reagan — Poised for big senior year after emerging as dominant closer in 2016; went 3-2 with 11 saves and 2.08 ERA in 56.1 innings last year; a tough left-hander, opponents hit just .172 against him; made 15 appearances, including seven starts, as a sophomore in 2015; was on Stopper of the Year Watch List last year.
Tyler Johnson — Has emerged as one of the top closers in the country after dominant performance in 2016; went 3-2 with nine saves and 2.42 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 52 innings; was named MVP of NCAA Regional after complete-game 10-1 victory over UNCW in elimination game; allowed just five hits with 11 strikeouts; will share closer role with senior Josh Reagan, but could also start; took the fall off to rest his arm after pitching for the USA Collegiate National Team this summer; rated No. 31 college draft prospect by Perfect Game.
Reed Scott — Senior right-hander made 29 relief appearances last year, going 4-1 with two saves and a 2.56 ERA in 45.2 innings; has appeared in 65 games and has a career record of 8-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 138 innings; known for his versatility as he can start, close or pitch in middle relief.
Colie Bowers — A transfer from USC Sumter, Bowers had one of the lowest ERAs on the team in the fall and is expected to play a key role in his senior season; made seven appearances for South Carolina last year with two starts, going 1-0 with a 2.03 ERA in 13.1 innings; opponents hit just .109 against him; threw two scoreless innings against Clemson; struck out all six batters he faced against Penn State.
**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe**