Bryant Bowen is chasing a dream and he believes one more solid season, this one at South Carolina and in the mighty SEC, will help him reach it.
Dallas Beaver is chasing the same dream, but there’s he even more driving him. He’s motivated by the number on his back, a number that means everything to him and has helped transform him into the player and person he is.
The two newcomers on head coach Mark Kingston’s team have something else in common. They are both grad transfers, arriving at South Carolina through the infamous transfer portal to further their careers and help Kingston get the Gamecock program back on track.
Though they arrived via different paths — Bowen from Southern Miss, Beaver from Central Florida — they quickly formed a special bond and are determined to give South Carolina a big boost offensively and the veteran leadership that could help the Gamecocks return to the NCAA Tournament.
PAYING HIS DUES
Bowen had a big junior season at Southern Miss, hitting .341 with 11 doubles, 11 home runs and 51 RBI to make the All-Conference USA team and lead the Golden Eagles to the Baton Rouge Regional of the NCAA Tournament last year.
But it took him a while to get there. An all-state player from Shreveport, La., Bowen had to redshirt his freshman year. As a redshirt freshman and sophomore, he was a platoon player on Southern Miss teams that slugged their way to the postseason each year.
Bowen had to wait for his opportunity, waiting and watching as his dream of getting drafted and playing professional baseball seemed further and further away. Every day when he turned on his phone, one word popped up first: Resilience.
“That was my word last year. I had it typed into my phone so I could see it every day and it’s something my family talks about,” the veteran catcher and utility player said. “Going and redshirting, you don’t play, so that’s tough being told you are not going to play for a season.”
Bowen made the Conference USA All-Tournament team as a redshirt freshman, but when he returned for his sophomore season, he still couldn’t crack the everyday lineup, starting just 26 of 62 games. He would have to wait one more year before he became an everyday player.
“It was just being resilient … just staying the course because some days you look up and say, ‘Man, this is tough. Why am I here?’ But there are days you go 4-for-5 with two home runs and you look in the mirror and say, ‘This is why I still do it,’ and you find reasons why you love it. Just staying resilient is how I progressed over the last four years and being mature about it.”
In three seasons at Southern Miss, Bowen hit 18 home runs and had 93 RBI in 125 games. Even after his big junior season, he did not get drafted. With one year of eligibility remaining, he decided to transfer to a school with a higher profile, one that plays the toughest competition in the country and could help him keep his dream alive.
When he entered the transfer portal — a new avenue for college baseball players — he thought he would hear from only two or three schools. Instead, 25 to 30 came calling. He told his parents he would only consider a school if the head coach called him personally. Kingston was one of the first to call.
“This is a historic place and it’s really just an honor to wear the SC,” Bowen said. “They flew me out here the next day, I took my visit and I saw no red flags, so I was like, ‘why not? If this is my last year of baseball, I can end it at the highest amateur level you can play at, so why not give it a shot.’”
It took just one visit for Bowen to realize South Carolina was where he needed to be.
“Just the resources, baseball-wise and academically, if you are not getting better at an institution like this, you are wasting your time and their time too. You can only get better at a place like this,” he said.
Bowen hopes his one year at South Carolina can help him finally realize his dream of playing at the next level.
“That’s exactly why I’m here. If I can put up half the numbers I put up last year, even just a step below it, at this level, I think it’s a lock,” he said. “That’s a dream I want to pursue and I am not going to let anyone tell me I can’t do it.”
Dallas Beaver had an outstanding career at Central Florida, where he helped lead the Golden Knights to 111 wins in three seasons and to the 2017 NCAA Tournament. He made the American Athletic All-Conference team as a sophomore and then had a breakout junior season, batting .316 with 12 home runs, 12 doubles and 56 RBI. He was fifth in the conference in RBI and top 10 in home runs, on-base percentage (.455) and slugging (.545).
But he wanted more. Having graduated in just two years with a degree in criminal justice, he was ready to take his game to another level.
“I just wanted to push myself,” he said. “I wanted to play amongst the best, I wanted to play at a program like this.”
After entering the transfer portal, one of the first calls he got was from Kingston and “immediately the interest went through the roof.”
“I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I was kinda in awe. A place like South Carolina wants me to come play there. … Once I got the phone call from South Carolina, I was pretty much set on coming here. There was a couple of other schools I was talking to, but this was the place I wanted to be.”
Beaver, a Cape Cod League All-Star last summer, committed to Central Florida early in his high school career in Kissimmee, Fla. but he knew of Kingston, who was building a winning program at South Florida. When he arrived in nearby Orlando, he played against Kingston’s South Florida teams.
“I was aware of who he was and aware of the teams he had built at South Florida. The teams they had were unbelievable,” he said. “The games we played against them were always very tight and action-packed. I knew what kind of team he builds, so as soon as he called me, I just knew exactly what kind of [opportunity] I was getting.”
Beaver also knew of South Carolina. He grew up playing with and against two former Gamecocks in Carlos Cortez and Riley Hogan. And, of course, he was very familiar with the history and tradition of one of the top programs in the country.
“When you hear South Carolina in terms of baseball, you are just thinking tradition, you think of winning, you think of Omaha and guys dog-piling and you think of the SEC, so there are a lot of things that are very interesting about this place,” he said. “The number one fan base in the country too, so I am really anxious and excited to get going.”
The first thing Beaver did when he signed with South Carolina was request uniform No. 38, the number he wore at Central Florida and one that has a special meaning to him.
No. 38 was the number of high school teammate Joe Skinner. Beaver and Skinner had grown up playing ball together. They played on the same travel ball teams, the same high school team and they committed to Central Florida together.
But on their recruiting visit as seniors, Skinner got sick. When he went to the hospital, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died just two months later, before their high school graduation.
When Beaver arrived at Central Florida, he requested No. 38 to honor his friend.
“That was one of the main reasons I appreciated my time there. I loved it there. I got to wear his number, and his parents were at every single ball game,” Beaver said.
Sophomore first baseman Wes Clarke wore No. 38 for South Carolina last season, but gladly gave the number to Beaver when he arrived on campus. “It means a lot to be able to continue to wear his number here,” Beaver said. “It’s something I think of every single day.”
The loss of his best friend gave Beaver a new perspective on baseball and life. It’s what drives him every day.
“Beforehand, I was all baseball, baseball, baseball. It’s given me an opportunity to take a step back and appreciate the game and appreciate life. It’s definitely given me new perspective on everything,” he said.
“It gave me a new appreciation for the game so I come out here and try to have fun and enjoy every second. I know that some kids don’t have the opportunity to come out here and play. A lot of kids would love to be at South Carolina playing baseball, so I just try to come out here and enjoy it with my teammates but also know the right time to put our heads down and get to work too.”
BRINGING SOME POP
After South Carolina’s offense struggled last season, Kingston was looking for some veteran bats that could make an immediate impact. When he looked at the transfer portal, he quickly zeroed in on Beaver and Bowen, who had both put up good numbers against quality competition.
“We brought them in because we thought our offense needed some proven guys who had had a ton of at-bats at the Division 1 college level and at a very high level,” he said. “Both were over .300 last year with really good power and RBI numbers and they are also two mature kids. … They are two proven bats that will absolutely help us.”
Beaver and Bowen are both versatile players who can catch and also play the corner infield positions. And they are expected to be fixtures in the middle of what should be a much-improved lineup.
The big question is whether they can handle SEC pitching. The Gamecocks were last in the SEC in hitting last year with a team average of .236. That average dipped to .208 in league play and South Carolina was 12th in the conference in runs scored.
“There is nothing like playing SEC baseball and facing SEC pitching 10 weeks in a row,” Kingston said. “That grind will be a challenge for them, like it is for all players, but I think they will be up to the task. Will they put up the numbers they did in the past? I hope they do, but if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world because I still think they will be a valuable piece of an improved offense.”
Bowen believes their experience at Southern Miss and Central Florida will translate. The Golden Eagles were 40-21 last year and played Ole Miss, Mississippi State and faced LSU twice in the Baton Rouge Regional. Central Florida, 36-22, won games against Auburn, Florida, Florida State and Miami. Both are accustomed to playing big road games in front of big crowds.
“I have played in Starkville [Miss.] for a three-game series, I have played Ole Miss eight times in four years, four times in Oxford. I played in an LSU Regional last year and played LSU twice. I’m very comfortable in that environment,” Bowen said. “I think it’s just keeping that mental capacity to be able to bring it over here where it’s going to be like that night in and night out.”
They know duplicating last year’s numbers over a 30-game SEC schedule will be a challenge.
“It’s a different beast and I think I know the reality of it,” Bowen said. “You are not going to hit .400 in the SEC unless something crazy happens and you get hot. It’s really just staying the course.”
While Beaver and Bowen are being counted on to boost the offense, they also bring something South Carolina desperately needs with 16 new players — experience and veteran leadership.
“Those guys just have a lot of knowledge,” redshirt sophomore pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski said. “They have another year or two years of being around the game. There is a lot of stuff you can learn from them. I think that’s something that can help the younger players.”
Though Kingston doesn’t expect his two grad transfers to take over the team, he says they have already been a positive influence in the clubhouse.
“I don’t think we have asked them to come in and lead this team because they have only been on this campus for about six months, but they have blended very well with our guys,” he said. “I know our younger guys have looked to them and asked them questions. They have been really good at just going about their business like the veteran, proven guys that they are.”
Both are willing to do whatever they can to help the Gamecocks improve on last year’s 28-28 record and return to the postseason. Beaver is ready to lead a team that has an intriguing mix of eight new freshman and eight transfers.
“We do have some young guys that we expect to step up this year and I think it helps when you have older guys,” he said. “A lot of times you have an older presence and a younger presence and they try to separate the two. ‘I’m a veteran, you do this.’ Or, ‘You’re a youngster, you have to do this.’
“I think the veterans we have brought in and the guys who have built his program, we have kinda taken the younger guys under our wing and put our arms around them because we expect big things out of them and we need them. It takes an entire team to get to Omaha and that’s our expectation and our goal.”