South Carolina prepares for repeat this fall

Ray Tanner and South Carolina have had an offseason like no other.

Every American dreams of visiting the White House and meeting the leader of the free world. That dream became a reality for the Gamecocks when they traveled to the nation’s capital to meet President Obama and get honored for winning the program’s first national title.

Months have passed since the Gamecocks dazzled Omaha with an impressive run through the College World Series. But before their trip to Washington, Tanner hadn’t seen his 2009 team together since the day they returned to Columbia, S.C., from Omaha.

The trip to the White House gave Tanner one last opportunity to thank the former players that helped the program win the title. It also gave him another glimpse of the players that now will carry the torch on the program’s quest for back-to-back national titles.

Since winning the title, Tanner has engaged in more speaking appearances than normal and expectations have climbed even higher.

Though fall workouts aren’t viewed with great interest at many schools, an opposite situation is found at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks must get the national title hangover out of their system and key holes must be filled to repeat in 2011.

Some teams fall into the trap of being satisfied with just one national title. LSU, for instance, started fall workouts later last year so the shine of their title could wear off. That’s not to say the Tigers had a hangover, but to suggest coming off a national title can take time.

It’s business as usual for the Gamecocks.

“The work ethic so far this fall has been very good. I almost feel like coming off a national title has been a tremendous benefit for our program,” Tanner said. “I don’t think it’s a case of we’ve won a title, so we’re satisfied. We’re not entering that realm of the world. To be honest, I think our guys are working harder than ever right now.”

There are some obvious differences between the current team and last year’s club both with the coaching staff and roster.

Mark Calvi, who earned a wealth of recognition as pitching coach last season, left during the summer to become the coach-in-waiting at South Alabama. The Gamecocks replaced him with longtime Old Dominion head coach Jerry Meyers, who previously served eight seasons on Tanner’s staff as an assistant.

“Coach Meyers was part of some great teams of mine in the past, so it’s going to be a seamless transition,” Tanner said. “He has a wealth of knowledge from a pitching and head coach standpoint, and it seems like our players really have embraced him with open arms.”

The Gamecocks also have some holes to fill at the plate and on the mound.

At the plate, the Gamecocks must replace outfielder Whit Merrifield, catcher Kyle Enders and shortstop Bobby Haney. However, they welcome back likely first-rounder Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Walker, Adam Matthews, Scott Wingo and Adrian Morales.

The situations behind the plate and at shortstop must be resolved this fall.

Without Enders, the Gamecocks would like to turn to Brady Thomas. However, the Gamecocks still aren’t sure if Thomas will be eligible to play next season, pending an NCAA decision on a medical hardship, which should come the next few weeks.

“I think it’s a 50-50 deal on Thomas playing next season. He had a medical condition his freshman year at Florida State that I believe warrants a hardship,” he said. “If the decision doesn’t go our way, we’re prepared to move on with Dante Rosenberg and other potential candidates.”

At shortstop, the Gamecocks plan to replace Haney with junior college transfer Pete Mooney, who Tanner believes will be a fan favorite next season.

“All of our position players have been solid so far this fall,” he said. “I really think Jake Williams, a Wofford transfer who had to sit out last season, has a chance to be a special player, too.”

The Gamecocks have the most questions to answer on the mound.

They welcome back almost their entire bullpen, but are dealing with the departures of weekend starters Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson, who combined for 140 innings pitched and 38 starts last season.

As expected, the Gamecocks have a plethora of competition for roles in the starting rotation. Tyler Webb, Ethan Carter, Bryan Harper, Nolan Belcher, Adam Westmoreland and Wes Cook are the primary candidates so far this fall.

“We could have a predominately left-handed pitcher staff in the spring,” he said. “Belcher is trying to rebound after not pitching a whole lot last season and Westmoreland is finally healthy again. Cook is another lefty that we’ve really liked this fall.”

Bullpen stalwarts Michael Roth and Matt Price also are in the starting mix.

Roth earned recognition in June when he put together gutsy starts at the CWS and finished the year with a 1.34 ERA in 40 1/3 innings. Price, meanwhile, made no starts in 31 appearances last season. However, Tanner believes both pitchers could find themselves in the rotation before a final decision is made.

Their situations could be determined by the development of freshman right-hander Forrest Koumas, who Tanner thinks can be a premier reliever in his first season.

“The question for us is simple: Are Price and Roth starters? That situation boils down to what the rest of the pitching staff does this fall,” he said. “Price and Roth are guys that give you different looks, while Koumas is a power arm that could give us some great relief work.”

South Carolina, as with every team this time of year, has much work to do between now and the spring to put itself in position to compete for the national title. But with the return of an excellent offensive lineup and many talented arms, the Gamecocks will have a chance to earn back-to-back national titles like Oregon State a few seasons ago.

Perhaps the White House already should prepare for a return trip from the Gamecocks.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Sep 16, 2010