Chad Holbrook's latest chase
It was July and Chad Holbrook was busy recruiting in the South. It's not why he became a coach, but he enjoys chasing talent. And in his profession, he is known as a natural at it.
He grew up watching his father, Eddie, a former men's basketball coach at Gardner-Webb and Furman, put in hours on the road. He noticed his father's diligence and saw how he communicated with players. His father liked the players.
Holbrook likes the "chase," and that's why he was in Atlanta during the summer. It was a Thursday when Ray Tanner called.
"Hey, you gotta get back in town," Tanner says.
Holbrook knew why. Everyone did, really. Tanner has spent a lot of years in the dugout, 16 of them with the Gamecocks, and he was beginning to think of hanging it up.
As the seasons passed, Tanner added administrative responsibilities. He expressed his interest in moving into a high-level administrative role at South Carolina to the university president, Harris Pastides. Tanner is respected around campus, beloved around town.
"Ray Tanner walking into a room in Columbia is like Dean Smith walking into a room in Chapel Hill," says Holbrook, who played college ball at North Carolina (1990-93), then spent 15 seasons there as a coach before moving to South Carolina in 2008.
Holbrook spoke from his office as he prepared for the first official day of spring practice on Friday, his first season as the Gamecocks' head coach, and he's thinking about July.
That Ray Tanner would eventually become the school's athletic director was an easy image to envision. But Holbrook wasn't aware of how serious those conversations had become between Tanner and Pastides; how many baseball coaches become athletic directors anyway?
Holbrook didn't seriously think it would happen, so he didn't think about how, during his four seasons as South Carolina's associate head coach, Tanner included him in meetings on all difficult decisions. He didn't think about how Tanner showed him the way to finesse delicate topics when speaking publicly. He didn't think about how Tanner asked him how he would handle different matters that come with leading a program. All these little ways Tanner groomed his successor didn't cross Holbrook's mind.
It was summertime and future Gamecocks were playing somewhere, so he went off to find them. Then Tanner calls, saying he's an AD and Holbrook is a head coach.
"Baseball is important to a lot of people in the state of South Carolina," Holbrook says. "Replacing a man, coach and legend like Ray Tanner created a whirlwind for me."
Holbrook drove back to Columbia and met with Tanner early on a Monday morning at the Hilton Columbia Center on Senate Street, where South Carolina houses its recruits. They ate breakfast with a couple of school representatives and spoke with Pastides on the phone. Holbrook felt some nerves, not because of fear but because it all came together so quickly.
Tanner told Holbrook all the questions he would be asked at his press conference later that day.
"Coach, how would you answer that one?" Holbrook asked after almost every question.
"You're a big boy now," Tanner told him. "You can answer them."
Holbrook always noticed Tanner's natural feel for people, his empathy. He'd listen to what Tanner said to his players, watch for the reaction and learn from the result.
You're a good player, but you weren't worth a crap yesterday. You gonna practice like that again today?
We're facing a pretty tough guy tonight; I'm gonna drop you down in the lineup. Think you'll struggle with him.
Those were Holbrook's lessons in subtle motivation. Everything, from the barbs meant to inflame and the jokes intended to relax, had a purpose. As Holbrook prepared for his press conference, Tanner reassured him, saying: "You know how to do this job. You're ready."
Holbrook said: "Coach has a very gifted way of calming you, making you feel like it's just a normal conversation. He made me feel at ease. For me, he's like a father figure and a brother. I can talk to him like both."
Tanner stayed away from the baseball field during the fall. He's aware of his status in Columbia and didn't want the weight of his presence hanging on the shoulders of a program that's no longer his. He'd call instead, checking in on his coach and asking about those tough decisions.
Oh, there are still many signs of Tanner around the team. The Gamecocks will still have short, crisp practices. Their weight room routine, bunt defenses and signals will be almost identical. Their travel itineraries will be the same. Holbrook saw the importance of details with Tanner, and these are details that have worked at South Carolina.
On Friday, Holbrook will arrive at the ballpark around 7:30 a.m. He'll work out with the coaches, then head upstairs to his office. He'll have a couple of hours of media obligations before heading to lunch with his staff. After that, a press conference at 1:30 p.m., interviews for the players at 2 p.m., then at 3:30 p.m., the first pitch will be thrown for the first scrimmage of the first Chad Holbrook season in Columbia.
Carolina Stadium will be open to the public, and it will fill up as the town comes to see the man who is replacing the two-time national champion icon. People will want a first look at Collegiate Baseball's preseason No. 7 club.
Holbrook says he doesn't feel any pressure to become what Tanner was, to live up to the 738 wins, the six trips to Omaha, the legendary status.
"I'm not Ray Tanner and I won't try to be Ray Tanner," Holbrook says. "I can't try to follow his success."
Sure, he won't try to.
But Chad Holbrook has always licked his lips at the thought of a chase. This is just the next one.
Arkansas makes history as preseason No. 1
When Dave Van Horn became an Arkansas baseball coach for the first time, things were different.
It was 1985, and he was a 25-year-old assistant for head coach Norm DeBriyn. He had returned to Fayetteville, where he had been a player, to begin his coaching career after playing in the Braves organization for three years. The Razorbacks missed the NCAA tournament in 1984 but were about to begin a season that would end in Omaha. Shoot, they'd even win two games at Rosenblatt, finishing third in the tournament. Yet nobody cared.
"Baseball was just something to do when the weather got better," Van Horn, now in his 11th season as Arkansas' head coach, said with a laugh in a phone interview. "Fans weren't coming out then. We had a die-hard 200 to 300 who came to every game. But other than that, most people needed a son or boyfriend to be playing."
The Hogs were part of the Southwest Conference then and hardly made a ripple in football country. Van Horn laughs as he compares those days to now, with his program fully entrenched in the fervor and hysteria of the SEC. And last week, Collegiate Baseball ranked Arkansas preseason No. 1, the first time ever for the program.
"Our fans have high expectations every year, but it's incredible now," Van Horn said. "It's kind of comical. Five years ago, being picked preseason No. 1 would have been big news. Now if we're not hosting a regional or aren't a top-8 seed, people are looking to see what's going on."
To be sure, Van Horn isn't asking for lowered expectations. His club went to Omaha last season, finished third and was disappointed. The Hogs return right-handed pitcher Ryne Stanek, who'll start on Friday nights and could be a top-10 pick in the MLB draft. Senior southpaw Randall Fant did good work in the fall, and Van Horn loves freshman righty Trey Killian, who could start on Sundays and allow Barrett Astin to stay in the bullpen and torture teams in the late innings alongside Colby Suggs.
How much run production the Hogs get could determine if they get another shot at Omaha.
"We've done everything here at Arkansas but win a national championship," Van Horn said. "That's what we're hungry for."
Stony Brook's Omaha momentum
A couple of days after Stony Brook returned from its trip to the 2012 College World Series, recruiting coordinator Joe Pennucci headed out with something a little better to sell.
He told recruits about a good baseball program and quality school, of course, and he spoke about past NCAA regional appearances. The Seawolves are proud of those seasons. But now, they're not Pennucci's only bullet. Now he can ask someone, "Do you want to know what it's like in Omaha?"
"Being in Omaha is the best recruiting tool you can have," Pennucci says. "It opens up the eyes of those who in the past may never have heard of Stony Brook or thought of it as a legit place to play or go to school."
This is the true value of Stony Brook's 2012 season. Can Pennucci, who was promoted to associate head coach in August, and the Stony Brook staff parlay one College World Series trip into multiple years of recruiting success? Will the recognition and exposure allow the Seawolves to attract a higher-profile recruit that might not have been interested before?
"I'm a firm believer in trusting your eyes," Pennucci told me. "If I was too worried about the high-profile guys, we wouldn't have gotten [2012 first-round pick Travis] Jankowski. But yes, more high-profile recruits probably return a call or show more interest than they would have before Omaha."
There are still inherent challenges at Stony Brook. It has to sell the America East conference and a cold corner of the Northeast. But Pennucci has proved that he can lure players from all over the country -- Stony Brook has four freshmen from California on the 2013 roster -- and that gives the Seawolves hope.
The Big 12 arms race
After saying hello, Oklahoma head coach Sunny Golloway said, "OK, whaddya need to know 'bout your Sooners?" There was hardly a breath in between.
Oklahoma opens 2013 ranked No. 14 by Collegiate Baseball, the highest among Big 12 teams. TCU (No. 15) and Texas (No. 21) also cracked the top 25.
I called Golloway to chat about his club a few days before spring practice was scheduled to open, and he was giddy about his team, particularly the arms. Based on his tone, it wasn't hard to imagine Golloway spending his afternoons gazing out his office window, perhaps sipping a warm herbal tea, and laughing hysterically at the thought of his rotation.
"Our rotation will be as good as anybody's in the country," Golloway said. "I'm really excited about that on Big 12 weekends."
Golloway will start lefty Dillon Overton on Friday nights. Overton can run his fastball into the mid-90s and could be a first-round draft pick in June. On Saturdays, the Sooners will send out Jonathan Gray, a 6-foot-4, 239-pound righty who threw 96-98 mph and touched 100 in fall workouts. With a firm slider and feel for a changeup, Gray has the physical tools that could put him into the top-10 overall mix in the 2013 draft. Oklahoma will go back to a lefty on Sundays in junior Billy Waltrip, a transfer from Seminole State junior college who pitches in the low 90s and was Baltimore's 12th-round pick in June.
"There's probably a little more pressure on Waltrip, because we know what we're getting with [Overton and Gray]," Golloway said. "But we'll give him at least three or four starts before evaluating him."
This doesn't give the Sooners the Big 12 title. They'll have to hit, and freshmen Craig Aikin (center field) and Anthony Hermelyn (catcher) -- two newcomers Golloway raved about -- fill critical positions in the middle of the diamond.
"And the Big 12 is a mental grind," Golloway said. "TCU is going to be tough. Texas deserves to be in the top 25. I don't think Baylor is getting nearly enough respect for what they can do. They return a lot of experience and talent and are a surprise team in the conference."
Manaea emerges as No. 1 overall candidate
Coming out of high school, Indiana State left-hander Sean Manaea wasn't a high-profile recruit. He had a good frame and some arm strength, but he was wild. He'd hit the glove on one pitch and dent a backstop on the next. His mechanics were sloppy and he struggled to repeat an action. But he did have that arm strength.
"He was our No. 2 starter last year but was very dominating," Indiana State pitching coach Tyler Herbst said. "He pitched around 90-92 and would touch 93-94. He worked hard every day on his mechanics, and his slider and split-change got better.
"But then he went to the Cape and made name."
It's hard to explain how Manaea did what he did in the Cape Cod League over the summer, but here's what it looked like: 51 2/3 innings, 21 hits, 85 strikeouts, 7 walks, 1.22 ERA. His fastball was 94-96 mph and touched 98. At 6-5 and 235 pounds with elite stuff, Manaea looks the part of a coveted prospect and has emerged as one of the early candidates for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
He threw his third bullpen of the spring a few days ago and told Herbst he was throwing about "80 percent." Manaea was touching 93.
"I think he'll have even another jump in his velocity," Herbst said. "He's getting really good at feeling what he's doing mechanically. I wouldn't be surprised if he pushes the limit at 99-100 mph this season."
A West Coast sleeper
The San Diego Toreros aren't immediately mentioned among the top West Coast teams. UCLA, Stanford, Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State have dominated much of the region in recent seasons. The Arizona Wildcats won a national championship last season.
But in the past half-dozen seasons, Rich Hill has built a sustainable and legitimate postseason contender in San Diego.
"In 2006, we swept Texas [early in the season], and the program really took a turn," Hill said over the phone from San Diego. "That really put us on the map."
That team had left-hander Brian Matusz, who the Orioles picked No. 4 overall in the 2008 draft, but lost in the Fullerton Regional. The following season, USD went 43-18 and was a No. 8 national seed in the NCAA tournament but lost in its own regional to Fresno State (eventual national champion) and Minnesota.
San Diego opens this season ranked No. 12 by Collegiate Baseball and has a lot of pieces, led by All-American third baseman Kris Bryant and pitchers Dylan Covey and Michael Wagner. But Hill gets excited about the depth and flexibility of this year's club.
"This is one of those years where guys are going to write themselves into the lineup," Hill said. "I liken it to making a great meal. All these ingredients all over the table -- salt, garlic butter, veggies, meat -- but now we have to mix them into a great meal."
Part of Hill's mixing could come in how he uses Bryant, who had a .483 on-base percentage with 14 homers last season and could be a first-round pick this spring. Opposing teams will try to pitch around Bryant as much as possible, so Hill might counter by hitting Bryant in the leadoff spot.
"We're a hybrid program; we think differently," Hill said. "We're searching for a table setter, and if we don't find that, then we'll probably put [Bryant] there. It's hard to walk him to start off a game. Plus, he can steal second."
Today in Omaha: High of 19 degrees, mostly cloudy, 142 days until Game 1 (as of Jan. 24.)
Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN.com. He played college baseball at Long Beach (Calif.) City College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating with a degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.