By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Shortly after the preseason college baseball rankings were released Monday, South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston met with his team for the first time this year.
Some of his players were disappointed that the Gamecocks are not ranked in the preseason Top 25 a year after making it to the NCAA Super Regionals and coming within one game of reaching the College World Series.
But Kingston told his players not to fret and reminded them of what last year’s team accomplished after not being ranked during the preseason.
“We weren’t ranked because they didn’t know anything about us at that time,” Kingston said. “They did not know at that time that Madison Stokes would have a career year, that Hunter Taylor had lost 25 pounds, that Justin Row would be the best second baseman in SEC. That Carlos Cortes would have monster second half and carry us. They didn’t know that LT Tolbert would hit .330. They didn’t know any of that.”
Led by career years from seniors like Stokes, Row and Taylor and the hot hitting of juniors Tolbert and Cortes, the Gamecocks finished 37-26 and rallied to make the postseason. They won an NCAA Regional in Greenville, N.C. to advance to the Super Regionals and finish No. 12 in the final rankings.
This year’s team is flying under the radar again after losing most of those players — seven position players and three key pitchers — and the rest of the country doesn’t know yet what South Carolina has this season, Kingston said.
“Nobody knows what we are right now, except for the people in that room,” he said. “The players, the coaches, the staff are the only people who know what we are about right now.
“Just like they didn’t know anything [last year]. Last year we ended up ranked 12th in the country. Do we want to be number one in the country? Yes we do. But for a team that had no expectations going in, we ended up the 12th-ranked team in the country. I reminded them of that.”
Kingston, who spoke to about 150 fans at the Lexington County Gamecock Club Monday night, believes this year’s team, which has 18 new players, has the same type of potential.
“Right now, nobody knows about Andrew Eyster, but you will learn that he is one of the best hitters in the country,” he said. “And they don’t know about the improvement of Noah Campbell and they don’t know that [catcher] Chris Cullen has lost 25 pounds this year and is working his butt off and we are hoping he has a senior year the same way Hunter Taylor did [last year].
“People don’t know that our pitching is going to be much more polished this year.”
The Gamecocks, who started preseason workouts this week and will hold their first scrimmages on Jan. 25, will be led by seniors TJ Hopkins, Jacob Olson, Cullen and sophomore Noah Campbell.
Kingston believes Hopkins and Campbell, who hit .364 in the elite Cape Cod League this summer, can be All-Americans this season. One of the keys to the team is keeping Hopkins healthy after he struggled with injuries the past two seasons.
“Right now, he is 100 percent. We are going to get him just enough work in practice to stay sharp but not so much where he wears down,” Kingston said. “Mark my word, if he stays healthy, he will be an All-American and he will be a top-six round pick this year. We’ve got to keep him healthy.”
Among the newcomers are Eyster, a junior-college transfer who had a big freshman season last year and is expected to hit in the middle of the order, and freshman Josiah Sightler, who Kingston said has the power potential of former Gamecock and MLB star Justin Smoak.
Kingston believes he and his staff maximized the potential of last year’s veteran team. So his message to this year’s team — and Gamecock fans — is simple.
“I don’t know if we are going to Omaha or not, but we will maximize this roster again and we will go as far as this team is capable of going and at the end we will be able to look in the mirror and say this was another building block in the program and another year of pushing this thing back where it needs to be,” he said.
“I think we have a shot. We are going to have to earn it on the field every day again, but we’ll just see. At this point, I couldn’t care less about the polls. As a coach, I can use it as motivation for our guys to keep that chip on their shoulder and we’ll see what happens.”