Last year’s Gamecocks pulling hard for South Carolina baseball to reach Omaha
COLUMBIA, S.C. — It was familiar and yet completely different.
Marcus Mooney and Matt Vogel laced up their cleats and grabbed their gloves in the South Carolina dugout Thursday afternoon. But the pair of former South Carolina baseball players lingered behind as the current Gamecocks got their final preseason practice going.
Eight months ago, Mooney and Vogel were in that same dugout for the final time as USC players. It was the initial mourning place after the Gamecocks lost back-to-back games to Oklahoma State in the Super Regionals to end their season and their careers. They lingered then as well, battling the devastation of a season that ended abruptly and prematurely. The pair, along with the rest of South Carolina’s outgoing seniors and early MLB departures, came up two games shy of reaching Omaha and the chance to play for a national title.
Now, they want to see the current team finish the task and lead the program back to the College World Series for the first time since 2012.
“That’s the ultimate goal when you come to a big school like this,” Mooney said. “It’s to get to Omaha and then win Omaha. Unfortunately, we have come up short the past couple seasons. Some of the older guys who are leaders know what we have been through and we will see if they can lead us to Omaha. I would be more than excited for them to get there.”
This time last year, Mooney, Vogel, Dom Thompson-Williams, Gene Cone, DC Arendas, Braden Webb and more were gearing up for their own run at Omaha. It was a rebound year, as the Gamecocks hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in 2015 to end a 15-year streak of playing in the postseason.
The Gamecocks bounced back in style, winning the SEC East and Regionals, sparked on by falling short a season before — just the same way this year’s South Carolina team figures to be pushed by the way the previous year ended.
“After my junior season not even making the tournament, that lit a fire under our butts to do better,” Mooney said. “We did really last season, but just came up short in Supers. So I would assume they have even more fire to get to Omaha. They are going to fight and claw to do whatever they can to win games, especially down the road in the tournament.”
Many of the players from last year’s team have been around through the fall and the spring before heading off to their respective spring training locations in the coming weeks. In that time, they have been impressed with what they have seen from the 2017 team.
Thompson-Williams, who spent only one season at USC after transferring from junior college, has been taking batting practice with the team throughout the spring and has liked what he has seen in watching the blend of returning players and new additions mesh.
“I think that these guys will have it figured out a little more than we did last year in a sense of the returners they have back,” said Thompson-Williams, the New York Yankees’ fifth-round selection in last year’s draft. “They’ve got back a lot of important returners and pitching, especially. Everyone in the whole country sees that. I think that will be the backbone of their team.”
Mooney praised the athleticism and depth across the roster before focusing on the pitching staff “throwing some fuzz” when he stood in on bullpens against Wil Crowe, Cody Morris and Tyler Haswell this week.
“In my eyes and probably many other people’s eyes, it is probably the best pitching staff in the whole entire country,” Vogel said. “We always talk depth of the pitching staff and from what I have seen so far in the past week and in fall scrimmages, the pitching staff is just unbelievable.”
It is the pitching staff that is expected to help lead the Gamecocks, who are ranked in the preseason top 5, toward their goal of playing in Omaha in June. The hopes are high that USC can again reach the Super Regionals, but win the games this year that it couldn’t last year.
The journey toward the end goal begins Friday afternoon against UNC Greensboro, with players who longed to play in the College World Series last year paying close attention and wanting to see this year’s Gamecocks get just a little bit farther.
“I hope they do and I wish they do and I think they will,” Thompson-Williams said. “It would mean a lot to me. I was only here for a year and the year that I spent here, I got into the Carolina culture. But obviously I would be happy that they made it.”
And if everything plays out as South Carolina hopes, there won’t be any need for sadness in the dugout at Founders Park this year. Just a celebration instead after the necessary pair of wins to go play for a national title in Omaha.
“I would be jealous, but I would be one of the happiest guys in the world if they made it there and won the whole thing,” Vogel said. “They deserve it. They work their tails off for it. I’m excited to see what this season brings for them.”