The South Carolina baseball and softball teams are addressing unanswered questions ahead of the season's first pitch.
The college baseball and softball season is approaching fast, with about a week to go until the start of the 2024 season.
With time winding down, the teams at the University of South Carolina are spending their final few practices working through their kinks and filling the gaps created following last season.
Both teams still have questions that need to be addressed before the first pitch. The departure of key pieces and the addition of new talent means the squads will have to plug and play until they find their perfect lineups.
Here are some of the biggest questions the Gamecock baseball and softball teams will attempt to address early in the season.
The Gamecock baseball team advanced to the NCAA Super Regional in 2023 and was at one point the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.
South Carolina jumped out as one of the more dominant teams in 2023 before injuries hit, leaving the team without a few of its star players in key moments.
Entering 2024, the Gamecocks are in a similar situation as they were last year. The team has one side of its game plan figured out but is still working on fine-tuning the other.
“Last year going into the season, everybody knew about our pitchers. They were established. They had had success, and so I think we were ranked because of our pitching last year, and nobody knew what our hitting would look like,” head coach Mark Kingston said. “It seems to be the reverse this year. I think our hitting is pretty well-established. We have two All-Americans returning. We have a 19-home run guy returning, and we have a lot of other really good hitters back … But I think our pitching has a chance to respond exactly the way our offense did last year.”
The team lost last season’s top weekend starters Will Sanders, Jack Mahoney, and Noah Hall to the pros. South Carolina brought back a few pitchers, including former Chapin star Matthew Becker, but is still working on determining how they all fit together.
“They’re being challenged every day, but I think we’ve got some really good candidates, both for the rotation and for the bullpen,” Kingston said. “I expect our pitching to step up just like our hitting did last year.”
Other players in contention for a spot in rotation include Eli Jones, Roman Kimball, Jevarra Martin and Dylan Eskew.
Pitching is not the only question around the team, in the infield, the shortstop position is still up for grabs after a competitive battle between Will Tippett and Lee Ellis. Kingston said Tippet is probably the most improved player from last season.
“(Tippet) put on really good strength,” he said. “It has made his offense much better than it was last year. He has plenty of range for the position, and we love range at the shortstop position. He’s a 6’5 runner. He’s a gamer. He’s a winner, as you guys saw last year. He battled through some serious injuries last year and just kept playing and playing hard. He’s a guy we’re very excited about.”
The team might have another option at the position in transfer Jordan Carrion, but it is unclear if he is eligible after previously transferring from Florida to Florida State. Kingston said he does not know when the team will know if Carrion is eligible.
“Jordan has a lot of starts in his past at Florida, at Florida State. He’s a guy that can play any position on the infield, and he’s a plus defender,” Kingston said. “It’s probably 50-50 whether he’ll be eligible for us this year. If he’s not, then he will roll over and come onto next year’s team. But if he’s healthy and he’s eligible this year, he’ll be a guy that can help us at second, short, or third.”
Despite these questions, the Gamecocks still face serious expectations. The team is ranked 25th in the D1Baseball poll and 12th in the Baseball America poll.
Key hitters returning include outfielder Ethan Petry, who earned All-American honors last year, after leading the team with a .376 batting average, 23 home runs and 75 RBIs. First Team All-SEC Catcher Cole Messina is back after batting .307 with 17 home runs and 65 RBI in 2023, and first baseman Gavin Casas returns for his senior season after hitting 19 home runs as a junior.
The Gamecocks’ first game will be Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. against Miami (OH) at Founders Park.
There is a lot of competition around the Gamecock softball team.
After qualifying for the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2019, South Carolina enters 2024 with a mix of new and old faces eager to get back to the tournament.
Headlining the group of fresh faces is incoming transfer former Stanford and Second Team All-American pitcher Alana Vawter. Her addition will help the team address its question marks in the bullpen after All-SEC first team player Donnie Gobourne left to pursue a pro career.
Vawter is an experienced veteran who helped lead Stanford to the Women’s College World Series.
“Having Alana Vawter come in, you have a seasoned professional,” head coach Beverly Smith said. “She’s an All-American pitcher with great experience who pitched in the College World Series last year. I mean, that just gives you an anchor on the staff.”
Vawter will be complemented by returners Bailey Betenbaugh and Jori Heard, while freshmen Sage Mardjetko and Reganne Bennett are expected to contribute as well.
Bennett was the Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year in 2023 and will be a two-way player for the Gamecocks.
The rest of the team’s lineup is deep with many position battles still going on.
Brooke Blankenship and Riley Blampied are locked at shortstop and centerfield, but almost every other spot on the field is still up for grabs.
“For me, it’s exciting that we’ve got decisions that we can make in terms of matchups against different pitchers we’re going to face and changes that we’ll be able to make in our lineup,” Smith said. “So I love the depth that we have with this team. The other thing I think is exciting is the confidence that this team has. They’re a unique group, they’ve been fun, they’re working hard.”
Players like Carlie Henderson will have a chance to earn playing time after missing the majority of last season. Henderson was injured in 2023 and is one of the players looking to claim a spot in the outfield.
The Gamecocks have until Feb. 9 to set their starting group for the season opener. The team can then spend the first few weeks evaluating and making any changes to be in full form for SEC play.
South Carolina begins its season at home on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. against Jacksonville State as part of the 2024 Carolina Classic.
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