By Noah Darling
OMAHA- As the SEC Tournament gets underway beginning May 23, many will tune in to #BreakfastWithTheSEC or even #MidnightSnackWithTheSEC and see some of the biggest and brightest stars at the college level. Many will overlook the players that help the great teams and great players become who they are. No meal, whether it be breakfast or a midnight snack, is complete without the secret sauce. Ever eat at Raising Canes and say no to the sauce? Didn't think so. Today, I present to you some of the secret sauces that will be on display at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, AL.
#6 South Carolina
Everyone knows the name of star Freshman Ethan Petry, and while South Carolina has struggled offensively the last couple of weeks, the Gamecocks’ secret sauce comes from the bat of catcher Cole Messina. Messina is batting .316 on the year and is second on the team in hits behind Petry. Messina has clubbed 17 homers on the year, while leading the Gamecocks in doubles with 17 as well. Messina has driven in 62 Carolina runs, also second on the team behind Petry. Messina has been a consistent force in a Carolina team that has struggled with injuries, and his emergence has been critical for Mark Kingston’s squad as they look to at-minimum host a regional in the NCAA tournament.
Much like South Carolina, Georgia baseball often sparks visions of a star freshman. Charlie Condon is a beacon of future hope for the Bulldogs, but the secret sauce is produced by a lineup veteran. Parks Harber is batting .282 through 52 games played, has 59 hits, including 18 that got over the wall, while driving in 58 runs on the season, good for second on the team behind Condon. Condon and Connor Tate continue to be the ‘main courses’ in a Georgia lineup that can get overlooked in the jam-packed SEC, but when Parks Harber is on, the Bulldogs have the ability to go on a run in Hoover.
Zane Denton leads the Tennessee Volunteers in games played, only adding to the experience that he brings to the Vol lineup. The Alabama transfer and his .284 average have 50 hits, 12 homers, 50 RBI’s, and he is second on the team in walks drawn with 41. Tennessee has been one of the more puzzling teams in the country, but Denton’s success at the plate has been an indicator of success for the entire Tennessee lineup.
#10 Texas A&M
Speaking of puzzling, the Aggies, fresh off a surprise run to Omaha in Jim Schlossnagle’s first year in College Station, have underperformed in 2023. Texas A&M is squarely on the bubble, and are going to need to string some wins together in Hoover to feel good about an NCAA tournament bid. Brett Minnich has been the difference maker in the lineup for the Aggies. Batting .272 with 28 hits, 9 homers, and 28 RBI’s through the 28 games in which he's been healthy enough to play, Minnich has been one of few consistent bats for A&M. If the Aggies want their season to extend past Hoover, Minnich will have to be the catalyst alongside Hunter Haas and Jace Laviolette.
The Wildcats have been one of the feel good stories in the SEC, yet again turning some heads, this time earlier in the season. In 2022, Kentucky strung together enough SEC tournament wins to start speculation about their potential bubble status. This year, there is no speculation, Kentucky is an NCAA tournament team, and they may even host a regional with their strong resume. Several bats have risen to the occasion, but lately, it’s been shortstop Grant Smith that has taken the reigns of a Kentucky team looking to again make noise in Hoover. Smith has a .281 average with 48 hits and 30 RBIs on the year, while playing fantastic defense along the way. Smith might be the hottest hitter in the SEC as of late, clubbing 5 homers in his last 5 games. Kentucky went and produced a pretty good lineup all season long, and then really added some heat with their secret sauce that is sure to turn some heads in Hoover.
Speaking of turning heads in Hoover, Jim Jarvis and Alabama both made headlines in last year’s SEC tournament, also sparking potential NCAA tournament conversations. While the headlines about Alabama remain, they aren’t conjecture about the Tide’s tournament status. They are safely in and just like Kentucky, may even be in that hosting bubble. Jarvis might be the definition of a secret sauce with his .301 average, 63 hits, 6 homers, 27 homers, and 8 stolen bases on the season. The Tide shortstop was huge in Hoover a year ago, and with a year of experience and a lighter load on his back this trip, he can drift in to his role of the secret sauce for an Alabama team that has quickly become one of America’s favorites.
No one in the SEC has put together a better second half than Auburn, starting with a pivotal Sunday comeback win against Mississippi State. Butch Thompson continues to be overlooked as one of the best coaches in America. The Tigers are the 5 seed in the SEC tournament, who saw that one coming in March? Auburn might be a team full of secret sauces, but while freshman Ike Irish has become one of the most well known players in the country, it’s veteran Cole Foster who stands out as the secret sauce for the sizzling Tigers. Foster sports a .335 average with 68 hits, including 11 homers and 44 RBI’s. Foster was a big part of Auburn’s Omaha team a year ago, and he continues to be a massive part of the recent success for the Tigers.
If you’ve watched Missouri baseball this season, you know Luke Mann. Mann has been terrific for the Tigers, who got off to a great start in Arlington but hit a snag once conference play started. Regardless, Steve Bieser’s squad is back in the SEC tournament, and Ty Wilmsmeyer has been the secret sauce needed to make it happen. The Oakland Athletics are licking their chops at the Tiger center fielder, because he gets on base and isn’t afraid to take a few extra ones either. Wilmsmeyer has 21 stolen bags on the year to go along with a .312 batting average, and he is second on the team in hits with 59. Seven of those were good for home runs, with 25 runs batted in overall. Wilmsmeyer is sure to create some havoc for a Missouri team looking to get in to the NCAA tournament picture with a few wins in Hoover.
In the city that begat the Raising Canes sauce, LSU’s lineup is full of main courses. Dylan Crews, Tommy White, Cade Beloso, Tre Morgan, Gavin Dugas, etc., you get the picture. These were known commodities headed in to the season. Freshman Jared Jones has been the secret sauce for an LSU team that can produce runs in the blink of an eye. Jones is batting .305 with 47 hits, 15 homers and 45 RBI’s, while also drawing 34 walks on the year. LSU is going to hear a lot of Tigers called in the MLB draft this July, but having a secret sauce like Jones will be instrumental in creating a new and flavorful lineup next season. For now, Jones has been a welcome surprise for an LSU team that has all the pieces to be playing until the final dogpile in Omaha.
When it comes to the Arkansas Razorbacks, the main courses exist on the mound. The Razorback lineup is one that is full of secret sauces, but perhaps the most secret of the secret sauces has been Tavian Josenberger, who has been the next great Razorback center fielder. Not only does Josenberger sport a .301 average with 49 hits and 11 stolen bases on the season, it isn’t uncommon for Josenberger to make a SportsCenter-worthy catch up against the outfield wall. As the Razorbacks have formed an identity on 'next man up' and embracing the depth they have, Josenberger has been a consistent force in the outfield and at the plate for a Razorback lineup that lacks star power but makes up for it in grit.
Jac Caglianone has been the story of the season for the Florida Gators, and Wyatt Langford will be a top 10 pick in July’s MLB draft. But, Josh Rivera has developed in to the third head of the Gator’s three-headed dragon that has sparked one of the best and deepest lineups in the country. Rivera is hitting .361 with 70 hits, 14 homers, 58 RBI’s and 13 stolen bags. The Florida shortstop has been instrumental to the success of this lineup, and his development in his junior season has been enough to really impress in a lineup full of impressive bats.
The Vanderbilt program under Tim Corbin has been a talent-rich MLB factory, and it has produced many great players who could not have become who they are without the help of some secret sauce. Jonathan Vastine has taken a gi-normous step as a Sophomore in a lineup full of bats that can spray the ball across the field. Vastine is batting .278 with 55 hits, 3 homers, and 30 RBI’s, while also playing exceptional defense in a position that struggled defensively the past couple years at Vandy. Vastine has a knack for producing the big hit when the Commodores need it most, and his emergence has been timed up well. The Commodores appear to be locked in to a Top 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, one year after being a 2 seed in the Corvallis regional. Vastine will be one to watch as the pressure mounts and his role becomes more crucial for the success of Corbin’s squad.