Around the horn: Players to watch in 2017

Around the horn: Players to watch in 2017

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. 

Holbrook knows how to lead Gamecocks back to Omaha

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. 

Gamecocks honor superfan Bill Golding

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. 

Starting Rotation

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. 

Crowe ready for much-anticipated return

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. 

Bullpen

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**