Opening Day will be special for more than one reason (story by Kyle Heck)
Holbrook knows what it takes to lead South Carolina to Omaha.
Chad Holbrook has been superb in his first four seasons as South Carolina's head baseball coach, compiling a record that would be the envy of most college coaches.
A .671 winning percentage (165-81). More than 40 wins in three of his four seasons. Three NCAA Regional appearances. Two Super Regionals. And he won the SEC East last season with a record of 46-18, 20-9 in the toughest conference in the country.
But if you're the head coach at South Carolina, more is always expected. Especially when you're coaching a program that has gone to the College World Series 11 times, including six in the last 15 years. And especially when you're following in the footsteps of Ray Tanner, who won back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011 and nearly won a third in 2012.
Holbrook, an associate head coach on those championship teams, had the enviable and unenviable task of replacing Tanner when the legendary head coach was named Athletics Director in 2012. Enviable because who wouldn't want to take over such a vaunted program? Unenviable because those are some big shoes to fill and lofty expectations to live up to.
"I'm awfully lucky to coach at South Carolina," Holbrook said prior to Opening Day.
A master recruiter, Holbrook has held his own as Tanner's successor so far. But he still has a big step to take — leading the Gamecocks back to Omaha.
This could be the year. Coming off his best season, Holbrook has a deep, talented and experienced roster and his best opportunity to take South Carolina back to the CWS.
South Carolina appears to have everything it needs to get back to Omaha, including one of the deepest and most talented pitching staffs in the country. Few teams can boast an All-American (Clarke Schmidt), a Freshman All-American (Adam Hill) and a 2014 Freshman All-American (Wil Crowe) in the starting rotation. And few have two dominant closers like Tyler Johnson and Josh Reagan anchoring the bullpen.
"This staff hasn't thrown an inning yet, but they are a talented group," Holbrook said. "They have the talent to be exceptional. … I have a feeling from their competitiveness, they are going to give us a chance to win."
The key offensive player will be junior outfielder/first baseman Alex Destino, who led the Gamecocks with a .321 average and a team-high 10 home runs and 59 RBI last season. A preseason All-SEC selection, Destino could double his home run total and be one of the top RBI men in the country. He should anchor a powerful offensive attack that returns six offensive starters and several others who played key roles last season.
But perhaps the most important thing the Gamecocks have going for them is an experienced coach with a level head and a calm, methodical approach. Having learned under Tanner, Holbrook knows what it takes to play deep into the postseason.
The key is not to worry about getting back to Omaha.
"We are just going to do one game at a time," he said. "I hate to use the coaching cliche, but that's what it is. The teams we play are too good. If we start looking ahead, we will screw up what is in front of us. We're not that good. We've got some good players, but if we are all not right in the present time and the game we are participating in that day, it's going to be a struggle for us.
"If we can just take it one game at a time, play up to our ability each and every day, try to improve in practice when we are not playing and come down to the park every day with energy and enthusiasm and heightened awareness and a sense of urgency, I think we have a chance to have a special year. I don't want to look toward June yet. You don't get to Omaha in February and March. You have to take one step at a time."
If the pitching shines and the lineup delivers, these Gamecocks can take a very big step.
And Holbrook will live up to those lofty expectations and follow in his mentor's extraordinary footsteps.
**Story by Jeff Owens/photo by Allen Sharpe**