USC will once again aim for Omaha in '08

With the 2007 edition of the South Carolina baseball team falling just short of their goal to reach Omaha, takes an in depth look at what to expect from next year's team and whether or not the expectations will remain the same for Coach Ray Tanner's squad. Read inside for more.

For those of you counting on Travis Jones, Harris Honeycutt, Arik Hempy or Wynn Pelzer returning, forget it. These guys are gone. The MLB draft scooped them up, and they will not be returning. It's sad to see guys like these leave, all for their own reasons.

Hempy's raw talent and drive to rehabilitate touched us all.

Honeycutt's incredible beginning to the season and memorable save to close out the classic Georgia comeback (1 IP, 11 pitches, 3 K's) was invigorating.

Travis Jones may be the fastest USC player to become a crowd favorite ever as his monstrous, yet completely unexpected stats, made him the poster boy for USC athletics.

Wynn Pelzer, the savior to the 2006 season, did not have the kind of 2007 campaign he hoped for, but the flame throwing right hander will not soon be forgotten by the garnet and black clad faithful.

The Projected Starting Line-Up in 2008

First of all, USC will have two probable first round draft picks in the line up next year in Justin Smoak and James Darnell. They'll be joined by All-American DH Phil Disher who will also be a highly sought commodity on draft day.

Add to the three sluggers a freshman from Miami by the name of Jose Rodriquez, and the 2008 version of the Gamecocks could be more ferocious than even the 2007 squad was at the plate.

Justin Smoak will anchor another powerful Gamecock lineup in 2008.

The defense should look something like this:

C – Trent Kline/Phil Disher/Kyle Enders**

** This is subject to Trent Kline staying another year. Speculation from the coaching staff says all signs point to him staying.

1B – Justin Smoak

He may wind up being the best player to ever come out of the University of South Carolina.

2B – Andrew Crisp

His surprising power and ability to play 2B could have USC in store for yet another shocking 2B performance in 2008.

SS – Reese Havens

The team captain will enter his junior year with an improving offense thanks to a more aggressive approach at the plate, while his glove is much better than what we saw in the Chapel Hill Super Regional.

3B – James Darnell

Darnell could play outfield in 2008, as he projects to be an outfielder at the next level. However, Yogi Berra would argue, "don't fix it if it ain't broke." Darnell could very well be the second best player to ever come out of the program. One thing that sets Darnell apart from even Justin Smoak – something that no regular fan really notices, but pro scouts love – Darnell can tire out a pitcher all by himself. At one game in the SEC Tournament, James saw almost 25% of all pitches thrown by Arkansas. When a lineup has nine players and one sees 25% of the pitches, pro scouts begin to drool.

RF – Harley Lail

Lail was a surprise in 2007. His 44 starts were unexpected as it is, but the .291 batting average and 42 runs were an even bigger surprise. Depending on who you speak to, Lail might be the one guy who had the most to do with keeping the Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament as long as they were.

Asked about a lead off hitter now that Travis Jones is gone, Coach Tanner said, "You could see Harley Lail at the top of the order again next year. He did that for us early in the year. He's a pretty good lead-off guy."

CF – Steven Reinhold**

** If granted another year, he's slated to be the starting center fielder. His gritty play and blazing speed could be the key to finally having a major impact all year long.

LF – Jose Rodriguez

The freshman recruit from Haileah, HS in Florida is a powerful prospect. It's tough to say in June that a freshman will come into a top 10 program and start. The scouting report on Rodriguez though is spectacular as he's got a fantastic arm, good speed for a 6'2", 215 pound slugger with good bat speed and great present power.

DH – Phil Disher

Most likely coming back for his senior season, Phil Disher is coming off a monster season in which he hit .328, 15 HR and 63 RBI. He's already been named to some All-American teams and was the first team All-SEC DH.

James Darnell will undoubtedly play a key role in the Gamecocks' success next season.

Pitching Staff

Friday SP - Mike Cisco

It's as though Coaches Tanner and Calvi are waiting for his inevitable greatness to shine through. His junior season could likely be that year and probably his last in a Gamecock uniform.

Saturday SP - Jay Brown

We were teased with a brief showcase of what Brown can accomplish as a Gamecock early in 2007. He's been given a medical red-shirt and slated to be back in time for 2008.

Sunday SP - Blake Cooper

He doesn't strike fear in anyone by looking at him, but the teenager with braces came up big, plays the game with unparalleled poise and enthusiasm. He's got four pitches up his sleeve and he's working on a fifth. Only entering his sophomore season, Cooper could be the number one guy by 2009.

Jay Brown and Jordan Costner looked awfully good early in 2007. Coach Tanner expects to get them both back next season, "Hopefully they'll both be back next fall health-wise. But, ya' know, all teams have injuries. We weren't able to use Same Dyson. It all adds up," continued the Coach.

Yet Another Top Notch Class in 2008

With the top recruiting class three of the past four years, some have to wonder if Coach Jim Toman, like Tom Cruise in the 1996 hit movie Jerry Maguire, is the real life "Lord of the Living Room."

He's assembled yet another great class for 2008. The problem with having great classes is that you usually lose some of these kids to the Major League Baseball draft rendering great classes alarmingly thin.

For example, 6'5" 225 pound behemoth of a third baseman Austin Gallagher was selected in the third round by the Dodgers and will never step foot on the campus.

Kyle Greenwalt, a nationally acclaimed pitcher, was drafted in the 20th round by Houston. Normally a twentieth round high school selection comes to college, but Coach Tanner believes otherwise, "I expect to lose Greenwalt. They're saying they're giving him fifth round money so we may lose him."

Alex Burrell, a 5'11" LHP from Landrum HS in South Carolina, gets high praise from Coach Toman, "Alex is a two time player of the year, I think his sophomore or junior year he was the player of the year, 1-A and he's a typical crafty lefty with a good breaking ball He's a mid 80's guy (speed of pitch), he's also I believe either the number 1 or number 2 student in the whole school. So he's got some academic money here as well as baseball money. So he's gonna' be one of those left-handers that's not a big-time pro prospect at this point, but he's just one of those lefty's that has a track record of getting guys out."

LHP Will Casey was drafted by the Atlanta Braves, but being the 1,149th player chosen isn't the most appealing situation when a top ten program comes knocking on your door. Coach Toman describes his presence as, "He's got a really good breaking ball and change-up, but he's more right now a pitch ability lefty that can turn a fast ball in and out, has a really good breaking ball of change up, so he has a little bit of mound presence, and pitch ability about him."

Keegan Linza, a RHP standing 6'5 225 from North Rowan HS in North Carolina also draws rave reviews from the Lord of the Living Room, "Keegan was in our camp a couple years ago, throwing 83 and 84 as a tenth grader. He's a guy that could be a sleeper in the class. He's coming on lately and has a pretty good slider, and he's so big, every bit of 6'5" 225, he looks like he might be an impact guy as a freshman as well."

Whit Merrifield, an INF/OF (6'0 165) from Davie County HS in North Carolina can eventually be a leadoff type sparkplug for the Gamecocks per Coach Toman, "Whit is a second baseman, center fielder type, probably runs a 6.6, 6.7 sixty, good hitter, steals a lot of bases, and knows how to drag bunt. He's gonna' be a table setter for us."

JUCO transfer Tyler Musselwhite, is a big RHP with what Coach Toman calls, "a really good breaking ball."

Steven Neff, a two-way player, was drafted at #788 last week by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He'll probably come to college rather than go directly to the minors. Coach Toman says the plan is to use him as a left handed pitcher and an outfielder. He's gotten bigger since last season, and he's another guy that the scouts will be looking at."

Jose Rodriguez, picked by the Twins at #542, has monster potential as a corner outfielder for the Gamecocks. Passing up a contract by the Twins might be tough to do, but Rodriguez has the awesome potential to become an All-American. He's been crushing balls with wooden bats, can run well for his size, and has a very accurate arm.

Richard Royal, a 6'0 185 catcher from Terry Sanford HS in North Carolina. A switch hitter with a great arm, Royal is an athletic catcher who stole 25 bases in high school. Royal could be one of the dangerous cogs in the line-up by 2009.

JUCO transfer Ryan Wilkins Jr., 5'10 160 from Spartanburg Methodist is a Centerfielder who can run. He's a leadoff guy that can hit to the gap. He runs a 6.7 in the sixty. One of the fastest players in his class, Coach Tanner is looking for him to fight for the job in centerfield next year.

In Conclusion

This team has a chance to be very special. Thanks to an incredible group of 2006 freshmen – guys that'll be juniors next year – the 2008 Gamecocks will be yet another contender in the fight to get to Omaha.

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