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College : : Story
Weekend preview: Palmetto punch
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013

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This is Chad Holbrook's first hurrah as the leader at South Carolina.

For years, coach Ray Tanner served as the head coach for the Gamecocks. But in the offseason, Tanner replaced outgoing athletic director Eric Hyman, effectively allowing Holbrook to get promoted to head coach. Though Holbrook played his college baseball at North Carolina, and even coached there for a significant amount of time, he’s very well aware of just how important the South Carolina-Clemson series is in the Palmetto State.

For that reason and more, he’s anxious to experience the series for the first time as the head coach of the garnet and black.

“You can pretty much throw everything out the window anytime we get together with Clemson. I’m not sure there’s anything that can happen in a season that can allow you predict this series,” Holbrook said. “I know the way we’ve played here as of late, we’re certainly not where we want to be as a team at the end of the season, but we’re also not in bad shape.”

As the Gamecocks and Tigers renew their heated rivalry this weekend, Clemson will attempt to turn the tables on its recent rash of misfortunes against the Gamecocks, a negative trend that began at the 2010 College World Series.

South Carolina ushers in its first Clemson series with Chad Holbrook as skipper.

That year, the Tigers won the regular season series between the two clubs. But it was a much different story when the two met in Omaha, as the Gamecocks, then, used a little known arm at the time in Michael Roth to storm past the Tigers with a pair of victories on the way to the CWS Championship Series, and ultimately the national title over UCLA.

That trend has continued the past two seasons, with the Gamecocks going 2-1 against the Tigers in 2011 before going 4-1 against Clemson last season. The Gamecocks won the regular season series before also beating their heated rivals twice in the Columbia, S.C. Regional, to again eliminate them from the postseason.

“Clemson uses this series to recruit guys, and so do we,” Holbrook said. “Those guys are hungry and they’re really pitching well right now. They’ve got many young, dynamic players, and we’re really going to have to dial up our game a notch this weekend.”

As the case the past few seasons, the Gamecocks will again need their offense to rise to the occasion against Clemson this weekend. First baseman LB Dantzler is off to a hot start at the plate for the Gamecocks with an outstanding .542 batting average, three homers and 13 RBIs, while Chase Vergason, who moved to third base this spring, is hitting .412 with a home run and four RBIs.

The Gamecocks also are pleased with versatile and athletic Tanner English, but could have a void to fill this weekend if shortstop Joey Pankake is unable to play. Pankake, who’s hitting .353 with four RBIs, is listed as questionable with a serious groin pull. However, most close to the program expect him to play come this weekend.

“Joey is really important to our lineup because he provides some serious protection for some of our other hitters,” Holbrook said. “With that said, in the last week against Albany and Furman, we strung together some really nice at bats. We’re battling some injuries here and there like most teams, but for the most part, I’ve been pretty pleased.”

While the Gamecocks’ offensive lineup continues to be a work in progress, the pitching staff at least has some stability when it comes to the starting rotation.

South Carolina sophomore left-handed pitcher Jordan Montgomery matured down the stretch last season and evolved into an elite arm by the end of the season, while veteran right-handed pitcher Colby Holmes continues to do what he typically does best, displaying good command with decent stuff.

Montgomery, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, was considered more of a crafty lefty type of pitcher for much of last season. However, he has evolved from a stuff standpoint after working hard in the weight room. Montgomery, who sat only mid 80s with his fastball last season, has added some arm strength and now sits mid-to-upper 80s.

“Our guys are all pitchability guys. We’re simply not going to blow up a bunch of radar guns, but Jordan is a little stronger and he’s feeling pretty good right now,” Holbrook said. “I don’t think he’s pitching as well as he can right now, but he is pretty unflappable from an emotional standpoint.”

Holmes hasn’t deviated from his usual plan on the mound so far this season. The talented right-hander has a 1.46 ERA in 12 1/3 innings of work, and continues to consistently throw four pitches for strikes, including a fastball that sits anywhere from 89-92.

Though senior left-handed pitcher Nolan Belcher has started in the No. 3 spot the past two weekends, Holbrook insists that role is still up for debate before Southeastern Conference play begins. Belcher has recorded 16 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings of work, and has worked hard in the weight room to improve his arm strength to pre-Tommy John surgery status, but also keep an eye on freshman Jack Wynkoop and veteran right-handed hurler Forrest Koumas.

Koumas is a well-known commodity because of his performances the past couple of seasons, while Wynkoop is a very intriguing arm to watch after getting off to a great start, not allowing a run in 5 1/3 innings of work so far this season.

From a stuff standpoint, Wynkoop has increased his arm strength since the Gamecocks first committed him. The left-hander was 84-85 with his fastball during his senior high school season, but is now up to 90-91 with the pitch at times.

“This is really a unique situation to have, because all of those guys have pitchability and do a great job of holding runners,” Holbrook said. “We don’t have any problem at all making Nolan a starter, or even putting him in the bullpen, because of his great mound presence. Jack, meanwhile, is going to be a big-time arm for us. He just continues to get better each time out it seems."

Freshman Curt Britt and veteran Adam Westmoreland are other arms that have been standing out to Holbrook, while veteran left-handed hurler Tyler Webb continues to perform at a very high level with a fastball up to 93.

The Gamecocks knew there would be a growing process after losing many key cogs and leaders from last year's College World Series club. But with the annual series against their heated rivals coming up this weekend, there aren't many holes to be found with these Gamecocks, surprising as that might be.

Perhaps Holbrook's first hurrah with Clemson will be one to remember ... just like most of the meetings the past three seasons.



Pitching prowess: Oklahoma's two-headed monster

It didn't take long for Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway to realize he had a pair of special arms in left-hander Dillon Overton and right-hander Jonathan Gray.

But if he had any reservations at all, that question was answered better than ever earlier this spring when at least 16 professional scouts showed up at an Oklahoma intra-squad scrimmage to see Overton and Gray each only throw one inning.

As if Golloway needed even more validation, he also could look at the Sooners' preseason ranking. There's no question OU lost several key offensive cogs to the MLB draft last summer, but even with those departures, OU still was a consensus ranked team.

The Sooners have a true gem in power right-hander Jonathan Gray.

Gray and Overton certainly weren't all of that equation, but they were and still are a big part of it.

"Both Overton and Gray are sure-fire first rounders right now, and we're ecstatic to have them" Golloway said. "They're pretty special, but obviously different, pitchers for us."

It's rather interesting to compare and contrast the repertoires of Overton and Gray, who are completely different types of pitchers. Overton is a rather intriguing arm for the Sooners. He's not a physical specimen at just 6-foot-2, 160 pounds. But despite his skinny frame, the left-hander has a very loose arm with some surprising durability.

Overton has been a consistent pitcher for the Sooners in his already two seasons with the program. He was solid as a freshman before taking an even bigger step forward as a sophomore last season. He tallied a 3.15 ERA in 122 2/3 innings of work, while also striking out 126, walking 24, and limiting opponents to a .265 batting average.

The lefty is off to another great start this season. He's 3-0 with two starts, and one relief appearance. He also has a 0.56 ERA in 16 innings of work. Most impressive is the fact Overton has struck out 16 batters, allowing just one walk in the process. Teams are hitting .190 against him.

"It's just typical Dillon Overton right now. He has just continued where he left off last season, and he was pretty special last year," Golloway said. "I didn't know at the end of last year if there was really anything I thought he needed to get much better at. As long as he stays healthy, I think he's going to be able to get almost anyone out at the next level."

Golloway strongly believes Overton could gain even more arm strength at the next level, but he's already got an impressive arsenal of pitches with good velocity. Overton consistently sits 88-92 with his fastball, and has also touched 95 a few times this season. He also flashes a 79-80 changeup with other sharp breaking stuff.

"He's more 12-to-6 with his breaking stuff. His changeup is outstanding, too, and the big thing about Dillon is that he just hits his spots. That draws a lot of scouts in," Golloway said. "He just peppers the strike zone. He's also the type of guy that can also come out of the bullpen for an inning if he really needs to. He's pretty special on the mental side of things, too. He knows baseball, and overall, he's a very sound pitcher."

Though equally successful, Gray is on the other end of the spectrum from Overton from a physical standpoint. Gray's physical makeup has drawn some comparisons to Rogers Clemens, as he's listed at 6-foot-4, 239 pounds.

Gray's evolution as a pitcher has been interesting to follow. There were plenty of times last season when the Eastern Oklahoma College transfer would cruise three or four innings, only to run into some trouble and eventually get knocked out of the game. However, the talented righty got that issue under control by the end of the season, twirling a gem against South Carolina in the Columbia Super Regional to make his case for superiority this spring.

"I thought he really took a big step forward in that regard at the end of last season, and even some this year. He didn't have his best stuff against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi last weekend, but he battled and handled that situation pretty well," he said. "When Jon first got here, he just went out there and tried to overpower everyone with his fastball. Now, he has a good feel for the game and stays calm. I just always tell him the old baseball motto that it's just a game."

An undisputed aspect of Jonathan Gray is his pure stuff. Gray consistently sits 95-97 with his fastball, and already has touched a few 98s, along with a couple of 100s this season. Gray also possesses a power knockout slider that typically sits anywhere from 81-86, while he's almost unhittable when the changeup is working.

"He has a big league out pitch with that slider. When he mixes in that changeup for strikes, it's just not even fair," Golloway said. "It's not like you can really sit there and make quick adjustments when a guy with that kind of arm is throwing his pitches for strikes. What ends up happening is hitters just go up there guessing."

Moving forward, the Sooners still haven't decided on a No. 3 starting pitcher, but have plenty of solid options in hard-throwing Billy Waltrip, imposing redshirt freshman Adam Choplick and true freshman right-handed pitcher Corey Copping.

Good thing the Sooners have Overton and Gray to take pressure off that situation.



Texas hopes for quick restore

AUSTIN, Texas -- The Texas Longhorns are in the midst of a long college baseball season that, for them, at least, they hope stretches well into the month of June.

But very much unlike last season, these Longhorns simply aren't taking anything for granted this spring. They learned that lesson the hard way last season when they failed to make the NCAA postseason for the first time in 13 seasons, and for only the third time in 34 seasons.

So, earlier this week, when the 6-2 Longhorns dropped a tough midweek bout to a solid Sam Houston State club, 5-3, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Texas coach Augie Garrido considered the setback a challenging moment for his program. So many times last season the Longhorns would lose midweek games, only to move forward without much of a worry. Come Selection Monday, those midweek setbacks came back to haunt them with the NCAA Selection Committee.  But this team is much different in almost every way, starting with the coaching staff and mental makeup.

Leader and red-hot outfielder Mark Payton leads UT's resurgence.

"The attitude with these players is much different than last season," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "They're more responsible to one another, and they want to perform at a high level to help each other out. I don't think you could say that about last year's squad. That team had a lot of individuality, but this team is moving forward it seems."

In addition to the player personnel side of things, the Longhorns have a new look in a variety of ways. For starters, the 'Horns put the college baseball community into a frenzy last summer when they parted ways with long-time assistant coach (23 seasons) Tommy Harmon after the team finished the 2012 campaign with a dismal .263 batting average.

The Longhorns, looking for some new and energetic blood, had exactly the right guy in mind in former UT standout second baseman and Sacramento State assistant coach Tommy Nicholson. The 'Horns initially were unable to land heralded Arkansas assistant coach Todd Butler after he decided last second to stay with the Hogs, but were more than content with landing the charismatic Nicholson.

"We're a lot more aggressive this season," Texas veteran outfielder Mark Payton said about Nicholson's style of play. "Last season, it seemed like we were way too passive and taking a lot of pitches, causing us to fall behind in a lot of counts."

Though the Longhorns take a major step up in terms of competition this weekend against Stanford, there's little doubt this offense seems much improved from what we've seen the past couple of seasons. The numbers seem to prove that, too. The 'Horns started last season on a sour note, and finished that campaign with a .263 average. So far this season, the 'Horns still haven't had a lot of power production, but have shown significant improvements in other areas.

The UT offense has shown more potential thus far this spring. Though some of the individual batting averages still aren't up to par with what Nicholson would like to see, the 'Horns, for the most part, are doing a good job of putting the ball in play. Payton is off to a fantastic start with a .536 batting average and 11 RBIs, while freshman shortstop C.J. Hinojosa, a former Perfect Game All-American, and third baseman Erich Weiss also are off to good starts with batting averages of .385 and .321, respectively.

The Longhorns also have high hopes for Matt Moynihan, Taylor Stell and Codey McElroy, who have batting averages of .273, .269 and .222, respectively, right now, but who have shown potential to hit for much higher averages as the season progresses.

This weekend's series against Stanford certainly won't determine where Texas heads the rest of the season, but it certainly serves as a significant barometer. Around this time last season, the Longhorns hit the road to Stanford and lost two competitive games to begin the series, before losing the series finale 15-1.

The Longhorns seemingly never recovered from that 0-3 weekend out in California, and would love nothing more -- with the offense leading the charge, of course -- than to avenge that series disaster, while also effectively putting a historic program back on the national map after a postseason hiatus.

"This is a place built completely on tradition. This university, in part, was built on the baseball tradition, and we're pretty fortunate to play baseball here. We can't take that for granted," Payton said. "We've been to Omaha, and now we've been at the bottom of the ditch. We know how we need to play and what we need to accomplish."



Series to watch

No. 8 Oregon at No. 18 Cal State Fullerton: Both the Ducks and Titans are playing at an extremely high level early in the season. The Ducks have Tommy Thorpe in the No. 3 starting role as they bring left-handed pitcher Christian Jones along slowly, but also have a very good rotation with freshman right-handed hurler Jake Reed leading the charge. Meanwhile, the Titans played exceptionally well last weekend against TCU with freshman right-handed pitchers Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza leading the charge. The Titans also have been pretty impressive from an offensive standpoint with third baseman Matt Chapman very dangerous.

THE PICK: Cal State Fullerton

No. 10 South Carolina vs. Clemson: It doesn't get much better early in the season than the annual series between the Gamecocks and Tigers. The Gamecocks are pleased with their weekend rotation of Jordan Montgomery, Colby Holmes and Nolan Belcher so far this season, while the Tigers are very pleased with the progressions made by Scott Firth, who pitched extremely well against Wright State last weekend. The Tigers also are excited about sophomore hurler Daniel Gossett, while second baseman Steve Wilkerson, a rising MLB draft prospect, is having a great year at the plate thus far, hitting .429 with a home run and seven RBIs.

THE PICK: South Carolina

Pepperdine at No. 19 Oklahoma: Waves right-handed pitcher Scott Frazier was stuck in a huge pitching matchup with Texas A&M senior right-handed hurler Kyle Martin last weekend. Now he's in another one this Friday with Oklahoma left-handed pitcher Dillon Overton. The Sooners are very pleased with Overton and fellow starting pitcher, right-hander Jonathan Gray. Overton has been up to 93-95 with his fastball this season, while Gray has a huge arm with a fastball that sits in the mid 90s, and an 80-plus mph power slider. The Sooners should win this series at home, but the Waves are coming off a big road series win over Texas A&M.

THE PICK: Oklahoma

No. 22 Texas at No. 6 Stanford: The Longhorns never really recovered last season when they hit the road and got swept by the Cardinal. Now, the Longhorns hope to change their fortunes when they head back to California this weekend. UT has an improved and more aggressive offense with offensive veteran Mark Payton and freshman C.J. Hinojosa leading the charge, while Parker French, Dillon Peters and Nathan Thornhill formulate a decent rotation, setting the stage for hard-throwing closer Corey Knebel, who has a fastball 92-95. Meanwhile, the Cardinal has one of the top arms in the country in right-hander Mark Appel, while the rest of the rotation is somewhat of a question mark with John Hochstatter and Bobby Zarubin finishing things off. The Cardinal will continue to be without outfielder Austin Wilson, who's out at least two more weeks with an elbow issue.

THE PICK: Stanford

No. 13 Mississippi at Florida International: The Rebels hit the road this weekend with one of the nation's elite starting rotations with right-handed pitchers Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers leading the charge. However, they desperately need No. 3 starting pitcher Chris Ellis back in the mix. Ellis missed last weekend's Rhode Island series because of a sore abdominal muscle. Meanwhile, for the Panthers, keep a very close eye on freshman first baseman Edwin Rios and Julius Gaines, as well as talented catcher Aramis Garcia. Rios is off to a torrid start at the plate, hitting .455 with a home run and 11 RBIs. But most impressive is the fact Rios had 10 doubles in just 15 hits. Meanwhile, Gaines is hitting .414 and Garcia is hitting .294 with a home run and five RBIs. This series has potential upset written all over it.

THE PICK: Mississippi

Miami at Florida: The Gators have made easy work of the Hurricanes the past few seasons, but if there was ever a weekend when the 'Canes fortunes could change, it's this one. Florida appears to be in an absolute tailspin, while Miami's offense seems rejuvenated with a .325 batting average through the first couple of weeks. Freshman first baseman David Thompson has been impressive at the plate thus far with a .323 average, a home run and 14 RBIs, while veteran Brad Fieger is hitting .438 with seven RBIs to lead the team. The Gators have won 11-straight contests over the 'Canes. Will that trend finally come to an end for Jim Morris' UM club?

THE PICK: Miami

Cal State Northridge at Washington State: The Matadors might only have a 4-3 overall record after dropping a series to USC last weekend, but this appears to be a vastly improved club with head coach Matt Curtis leading the charge. The Matadors have a couple of intriguing arms to watch this weekend, including ace Jerry Keel, who has a 3.00 ERA in 12 innings of work, and utility player Josh Goossen-Brown, who has yet to allow a run in three innings, and offensively, is hitting .276 with seven RBIs. As for the Cougars, keep an eye on hard-hitting outfielder Jason Monda, who's hitting .300 with two homers and eight RBIs, while Nick Tanielu and Yale Rosen are hitting .467 and .407, respectively. Pitching-wise, keep an eye on starting pitcher Jo Pistorese, who has yet to allow a run in 11 2/3 innings of work.

THE PICK: Washington State

Southern Miss at Troy: This is a huge series for both the Golden Eagles and Trojans. USM has a very solid one-two punch in its weekend rotation with Andrew Pierce and Jake Drehoff leading the charge. Pierce typically was 87-90 with his fastball last season, but the senior has been up to 92 at times so far this spring. Meanwhile, Drehoff is a mid-to-upper 80s pitcher that will pepper the strike zone. As for Troy, keep an eye on Danny Collins, Tyler Vaughn and Logan Pierce. All three are off to fantastic starts offensively, hitting .481, .438, and .429, respectively. USM, though, seems to have a significant edge from a pitching standpoint.

THE PICK: Southern Miss

Tulane at Alabama: Speaking of an important series for a pair of teams, how about this three-game bout between the Green Wave and Crimson Tide? Tulane got off to a solid start opening weekend, but dropped a tough home weekend series to Notre Dame last weekend. Keep an eye on right-handed pitcher Tony Rizzotti, who has been up to 95-96 this spring, while the Green Wave also has a plethora of other arms to watch this weekend. Meanwhile, Alabama is off to a terrific 7-1 start and has a pair of intriguing true freshman hitters in Mikey White and Georgie Salem. Both White and Salem are hitting .333 so far this season, with the two knocking in five and six runs, respectively. Bama's pitching staff also has been a surprise with Taylor Guilbeau, Jon Keller and Charley Sullivan all off to good starts, while Ray Castillo, Keaton Haack and Tucker Hawley spearhead an impressive bullpen.

THE PICK: Alabama

Kent State at No. 15 Louisville: After reaching the College World Series last year, the Golden Flashes weren't expected to miss much of a beat this season. Well, that hasn't happened, and they're in a lot of trouble entering this weekend's series against the Cardinals with a dismal 1-7 record. Starting pitchers Tyler Skulina (2.08) and Taylor Williams (2.57) have performed at a high level, but the rest of the pitching staff has failed miserably with the staff as a whole sporting a 7.85 ERA. Offensively, the Golden Flashes need a big weekend out of Evan Campbell and Alex Miklos, who are batting .342 and .323, respectively. As for the Cardinals, they're not surprisingly off to a great start. The starting rotation has been terrific with Chad Green and Jeff Thompson leading the charge, while reliever Nick Burdi is a rising elite prospect. Burdi struck out all three batters he faced in an inning of relief work last weekend against Akron. Oh yeah, the hard-throwing sophomore righty also touched 100 on the radar gun.

THE PICK: Louisville



Tournament games to watch

THURSDAY
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2 Arkansas vs. 25 Arizona State (Coca-Cola Classic)

San Diego vs. Coastal Carolina (Caravelle Resort Tournament)

FRIDAY
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1 North Carolina vs. 14 Rice (Astros Foundation Classic)

2 Arkansas vs. Gonzaga (Coca-Cola Classic)

Houston vs. Texas A&M (Astros Foundation Classic)

Connecticut vs. Ohio State (Bright House Invitational)

Baylor vs. California (Astros Foundation Classic)

23 Notre Dame vs. Tennessee (Irish Baseball Classic)

Florida Atlantic vs. Coastal Carolina (Caravelle Resorts Tournament)

SATURDAY
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1 North Carolina vs. California (Astros Foundation Classic)

2 Arkansas vs. 25 Arizona State 9 (Coca-Cola Classic)

14 Rice vs. Texas A&M (Astros Foundation Classic)

Florida Atlantic vs. 9 North Carolina State (Caravelle Resort Tournament)

23 Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech (Irish Baseball Classic)

Indiana vs. Coastal Carolina (Caravelle Resort Tournament)

Houston vs. Baylor (Astros Foundation Classic)

San Diego vs. UNC Wilmington (Hughes Brothers Invitational)

SUNDAY
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1 North Carolina vs. Texas A&M (Astros Foundation Classic)

14 Rice vs. Baylor (Astros Foundation Classic)

9 North Carolina State vs. Coastal Carolina (Caravelle Resort Tournament)

25 Arizona State vs. Gonzaga (Coca-Cola Classic)

California vs. Houston (Astros Foundation Classic)

Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Irish Baseball Classic)



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