By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
There is probably no one on the South Carolina roster looking forward to the opening of SEC play this weekend more than Georgia native Luke Berryhill.
Especially with the rival Bulldogs coming to Founders Park.
Berryhill, a catcher from Canton, Ga., grew up a Georgia fan and dreaming of playing for the Bulldogs. That all changed when he got the opportunity to play at South Carolina.
“I dare to say it, but I was a Georgia fan growing up,” he said Thursday. “But once baseball started becoming serious for me, I wasn’t just going to limit my options to just one school, so I am super happy to be here.”
Berryhill, who is hitting .300 out of the cleanup spot and leads the Gamecocks with 25 RBI, will have several family members and friends at Founders Park this weekend and can’t wait for his first SEC game.
“It’s something,” he said. “I have some people coming into town because everyone I know back home is a Georgia fan so they are coming back to support me. It’s going to be real fun.”
For the 19 newcomers on the South Carolina roster, this will be their first taste of SEC baseball. And though every weekend is a challenge, the Gamecocks open against No. 8 Georgia, a team South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston said is “really good.”
Kingston’s biggest challenge is preparing his new players for the grind of the 10-week SEC season and for the realities of playing in the toughest baseball conference in the country.
“You have to try to keep an even keel about it,” Kingston said. “To me, the SEC is much like the big leagues, you are not going to go undefeated. There are going to be days when you play really well and the other team plays just as well and might win a game against you. You have to be very intense.
“It’s a heightened awareness in terms of what it takes to win, but you need to understand there are going to be some bumps in the road. That’s part of playing in such a great conference. Everybody is good, so you have to handle the downs, you have to handle the ups and make sure you keep a good even-keel. You focus on what wins games and make sure you don’t overreact or panic if you go into a little bit of a lull because you are playing such great competition.”
Kingston’s first team proved that last season, starting 1-5 in the conference but going 16-8 the rest of the way and winning five straight SEC series to make the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks (37-26) advanced to the Super Regionals and came within one game of making the College World Series.
“I think that shows that you just have to try to stay as stable as you can throughout the process,” he said. “You are going to have some highlights, you are going to have some lowlights and you just have to look at them the same and move on every day.”
Berryhill has battled through bumps and bruises and minor injuries to catch 15 of Carolina’s first 17 games. With limited options behind him, he will have to continue that pace as Kingston plans to use him in all three weekend games. Senior Chris Cullen is the backup catcher but has moved to first base, where he has started 13 of the last 14 games.
“Chris can catch but our best team right now is with Luke catching and him at first base,” Kinston said Thursday. “He can spell him but we are hoping to not have to do that unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Kingston has talked to Berryhill about the grind of catching every day.
“He has to, based on where we are right now. He’s tough enough, he’s durable enough,” he said. “Guys in the big leagues catch 140 games a year. He is more than capable of catching four games a week.”
Preseason All-American Noah Campbell is going through his second slump of the season and has seen his batting average fall to .243. But Kingston believes Campbell and the coaching staff may have found some answers this week. After reviewing a lot of video of his swing, Kingston said it appears Campbell, an all-star in the Cape Cod League last summer, might be relying too much on his hands at the plate.
“He has elite hand-eye coordination and quick hands but we were looking at the video and his legs weren’t quite being used as much as they were this summer,” Kingston said. “Hopefully, we identified what was holding him back just a little bit. We’re hoping that gets him going. Hitters hit and I think he will have a great season. It’s a little bit of a slow start for him but I think he is going to be just fine as the season goes on.”
Another key player who has gotten off to a slow start is closer Sawyer Bridges, who has a 5.19 ERA with just one save in the first 17 games. Kingston said Bridges, who has battled a shoulder injury for several years, is not 100 percent healthy right now but is getting close.
“He’s a gamer, he gets after it, he just needs to be at the point where his fastball is back to that 87-88 [mph] range and he can sink it at a lower velocity when he needs to,” Kingston said. “He just hasn’t been there yet, but I think he will be.”