COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s Chad Holbrook is ready for everything that comes with being the Gamecocks’ new baseball coach, even the enormous expectations to match the success of his old dugout boss Ray Tanner.
Holbrook was named the program’s first new coach in 16 years last summer, promoted when Tanner became the school’s athletic director. And Holbrook says rarely has a day gone by when he hasn’t been reminded that Tanner had the program peaking with College World Series championships in 2010 and 2011, and a runner-up finish in Omaha last summer.
“I have to stay narrow-minded in regards to that because if I look at what coach Tanner accomplished, what our program has accomplished, that’s too much to even think about,” Holbrook said Friday as the Gamecocks opened practice.
Holbrook was hired by Tanner after the 2008 season. He was instrumental in assembling and guiding a South Carolina program that has 198 victories the past four seasons – the most in Division I. Holbrook acknowledged he’ll lean heavily on Tanner’s principles of being aggressive, playing mistake-free on the field and giving maximum effort in the moment, without looking too far down the road.
“I don’t talk to our team about Omaha, I don’t talk to them about the pressure of getting back to the College World Series,” he said. “I talk to them about, ‘Hey, let’s be good today.’ ”
Holbrook had been Tanner’s chief counsel since arriving. The two have plenty in common. Both played baseball in the ACC in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Holbrook with the Tar Heels and Tanner with rival Wolfpack. Each are relentless recruiters, consistently convincing some of the country’s best talent to come to their schools.
Holbrook, as a North Carolina assistant, helped that school reach the CWS in three straight seasons (2006-08), and continued that run with the Gamecocks from 2010-12. Holbrook even handles the media like the Gamecocks former coach, using a soft-Southern dialect and mimicking Tanner’s trait of asking a question before answering it.
“Would I be disappointed if we don’t make the College World Series? Yeah, I’d be disappointed,” Holbrook said.
If Holbrook and the Gamecocks hope to reach a fourth straight CWS, it will be without the standouts who fueled the recent run. South Carolina’s rotation will be without last year’s senior ace Michael Roth and lockdown closer Matt Price, who gave up his final season after getting drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.
Also gone is power-hitting first baseman Christian Walker, a junior taken in the fourth round by the Orioles. The outfield lost speedy players in Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews.
Still, Holbrook likes what he’s seen from his returnees during workouts this past fall.
Last year’s third baseman, LB Dantzler, will shift over to first with second baseman Chase Vergason moving to third. That opens a spot at second for highly anticipated freshman Max Schrock, who Holbrook says has already established himself as No. 3 in the batting order once the season begins Feb. 15.
Conway native Colby Holmes and Jordan Montgomery figure into the weekend pitching rotation while Tyler Webb will get first crack at taking over for Price in the closer’s role.
Holbrook says he won’t hesitate to call the athletic director’s office for advice when Tanner’s not bogged down in administrative duties. Holbrook, who’s never been a head coach before, understands the weight on his shoulders to keep South Carolina’s success on track.
The Gamecocks have already sold a record number of season tickets (5,477) at Carolina Stadium.
Things haven’t changed in the locker room with Holbrook in charge, said Dantzler, one of three captains picked by teammates. Holbrook’s tweaked things like bunt defense and hitting approaches, he said. “Their general philosophy and how we get after and how we get our work done is pretty much the same,” he said. “It’s pretty much business as usual.”
Except if you’re Holbrook, who knows he won’t have Tanner standing on the top step calling the shots.
“The anxiety level that I have right now is a little bit different than at this time last year,” he said. “The biggest difference is it’s my responsibility to have this team ready to compete at the highest level.”