Postseason baseball returned to Columbia last season, but the South Carolina baseball team has higher aspirations than NCAA regional appearances.
Head coach Mark Kingston said himself at the end of last season: “It was a good year, but we want great years around here.”
As USC opens fall practice Friday afternoon, the Gamecocks will look to build on their 34-23 (16-14 SEC) resume from a year ago. Though the Gamecocks lost several key players to the MLB Draft — including sluggers Wes Clarke and Brady Allen and top pitchers Brett Kerry and Thomas Farr — USC returns several core pieces while also pulling in the No. 16 recruiting class in the country, according to Baseball America.
Kingston addressed reporters on the heels of Friday’s 3:30 p.m. scrimmage, which is open to the public. Here are the latest news and notes around the program.
A new-look coaching staff
When recruits come to visit Founders Park, Kingston takes pleasure in pointing to the murals and banners of Scott Wingo and telling players “he’s now an assistant coach with us.”
Wingo, a USC College World Series hero, joined Kingston’s staff as volunteer assistant this summer — one of three new coaches.
Wingo replaces long-time assistant Stuart Lake, who left baseball to pursue other interests. Pitching coach Skylar Meade left to become head coach at Troy, while recruiting coordinator Trip Couch left for the same role at Arizona. In their places, Kingston tabbed former Indiana assistant Justin Parker as USC’s new pitching coach and former Texas A&M assistant Chad Caillet as its new coordinator.
Though fall practice is just beginning, Kingston said the new coaches are meshing well with each other and with the players.
“When this opportunity presented itself I think it was a great opportunity to see what was out there,” Kingston said. “We ended up with some guys that I had known for a while, their reputations were flawless and it was a great opportunity to bring new ideas and new energy into the program, and that’s been great. I think our players have responded very well.
“Obviously, we add Scott Wingo as a new coach, and I think that’s been really, really cool for our players.”
The veteran mainstays
USC’s offense will take a hit by losing Allen and Clarke from the top half of the batting order, but the Gamecocks do retain a strong position player core.
Kingston said losing leading hitter Andrew Eyster was a “50-50 proposition” heading into the MLB Draft, but the senior’s return gives the Gamecocks a veteran leader and some middle-of-the-order stability.
“This is a proven hitter. He was a .300 hitter in the SEC last year,” Kingston said. “And so to get him back has been very important to us. I’ll also say the same for Josiah Sightler. Sightler could have been drafted last year and I think he’s got another gear to get to, as well.
“So when you look at Sightler or when you look at (Braylen) Wimmer, when you look at Eyster or when you look at (Colin) Burgess, there’s more guys coming back that are very important to our success than maybe people are giving us credit for.”
Among those returnees, Wimmer could be primed for the biggest season after coming off a breakout sophomore year and a strong summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Wimmer boasts both power and speed, hitting a career-high 11 homers last season while seeing time at second base and center field. Kingston said Thursday that the Gamecocks intend to give Wimmer a long look at shortstop this fall, adding another layer of versatility to one of the team’s most dynamic players.
“There’s another gear for him,” Kingston said. ”You’re talking about a sophomore last year that had 27 extra-base hits, playing an SEC schedule. That’s very impressive. And when we signed him, sometimes you sign guys and they’re finished products. ... He was a guy that was very projectable when we signed him. He was long, lanky, athletic. And since the day he’s gotten here, he’s gotten more mature and he’s gotten physically stronger.”
State of the pitching staff
The Gamecocks will be without two young pitchers who could have thrown significant innings this season.
Left-hander Jackson Phipps had Tommy John surgery this offseason and will miss the 2021-22 season, Kingston said.
Right-hander Jack Mahoney also won’t pitch this season after Tommy John surgery shortened a strong freshman season on the mound. However, Kingston said Mahoney will still be available this season as a position player. He played shortstop in high school.
While USC will have a few key holes to fill, the top of the weekend rotation should remain strong. Right-hander Will Sanders emerged as a key arm as a freshman, and the 6-foot-6 mid-90s hurler projects to start on Friday nights. Behind him, the Gamecocks bring back power stuff from the left side with veteran Julian Bosnic forgoing the MLB Draft. Kingston has high expectations for both.
“I think they’ll be going into the 2022 season confident in themselves. They’ve done it,” Kingston said. “Last year they were both trying to prove themselves, and they did that.
“Julian Bosnic should be extremely confident going into next season. I think he’ll be one of the top left-handed pitchers in the country, and I can’t wait to go to battle with him. And I think Will Sanders’ progression will continue. I think coach Parker will do a great job with him.”