Morris: Monte Lee has his bases covered

Ex-USC assistant guides Cougars on college baseball’s ever-changing paths

rmorris@thestate.comApril 16, 2013 

FILE: South Carolina's Phil Disher gets a high five from then-third base coach Monte Lee after Disher hit a grand slam in the third inning against Mississippi State University at Sarge Frye Field in Columbia, SC, on March 23, 2008.

ERIK CAMPOS — The State

NEVER ACCUSE Monte Lee of being incapable of adapting to change. The former South Carolina assistant coach, whose College of Charleston club rolls into Carolina Stadium tonight, continues to steer his program through a sea of changes.

In five seasons, Lee has re-directed College of Charleston’s recruiting efforts, tailored his team’s game to the new steroid-free bats era of college baseball, and soon will deal with competing in a different conference.

The one constant has been winning.

“Sustained success,” Lee says, “that’s the big thing.”

Through his first four seasons, College of Charleston averaged 39 wins, captured one Southern Conference regular-season championship, and appeared in two NCAA regional tournaments. The Cougars are 20-15 this season, including an 11-6 standing in the conference that leaves them one-half game out of first place.

As a result, Lee has been named one of the top 10 college coaches under 40 (he is 36) by Baseball America and a top 10 rising head coach by Perfect Game.

Lee’s formula for success is simple on the surface, yet oftentimes difficult to execute when you compete — on the field and in recruiting — in the same state with the likes of South Carolina, Clemson and Coastal Carolina.

“It boils down to recruiting,” Lee says. “You’ve got to recruit really hard and sign high-quality players and develop them when they get here.”

When Lee left USC for College of Charleston in 2009, he inherited a highly successful program from John Pawlowski, who used Florida junior colleges as his recruiting base. Because Lee had established his name at USC throughout the high school and summer ball ranks within the state, he hit the ground running at College of Charleston.

“They had a lot of success at the College of Charleston, but their base wasn’t in South Carolina,” Lee says. “I wanted to make the change a little bit with it being a state school and with it being such a great place to go to school and live.”

Twenty of the 34 players on the current roster list South Carolina as home.

Through three seasons, Lee’s College of Charleston teams were best known for playing the way he liked to coach. He was USC’s hitting instructor for six seasons when the Gamecocks annually ranked among the national leaders in home runs and offensive firepower. Lee was an advocate of the three-run homer, a strategy that played well with the turbo-charged aluminum bats used in the college game.

College of Charleston ranked third nationally in 2009 with 110 home runs and fifth in 2010 with 105 long balls. Lee says his teams played to the strength of the game at the time.

Then the rules changed for the 2011 season. The bounce off the aluminum bats was reduced to make them play more like wood bats. College of Charleston again ranked second nationally in home runs that season, but its total slipped to 81. A year ago, the Cougars ranked fifth nationally with 65 home runs, and they are on pace to hit 33 this season.

“It’s been an adjustment,” Lee says. “... You have to execute your bunts, and hit-and-runs, moving runners and advancing runners. You really have to play good defense. If you give the opposition anything, you can’t hit that three-run homer later to make up for it.”

Lee says the change has been good for baseball at the college and high school levels. No longer can a college load its roster with designated hitters. Players, beginning in high school, must develop a more-rounded game to include speed and defensive skills.

While Lee has proved masterful at making those adjustments, his biggest challenge is about to stare him in the face. College of Charleston will leave the Southern Conference beginning next school year for the Colonial Athletic Association.

College of Charleston made its move primarily to accommodate the basketball program, since it does not field a football program. The other programs besides basketball must deal with the residue of such a decision.

Now, instead of College of Charleston squaring off every year in baseball against the likes of Wofford, Furman and Georgia Southern, the Cougars will play the likes of UNC-Wilmington, William & Mary and Hofstra.

“I’m going to miss the SoCon,” Lee says. “It’s a bus league and a great conference, and a great baseball league.”

Lee says the Colonial Athletic Association offers the excitement of playing in cities such as Boston and New York. Also, because there are fewer teams in the Colonial than the Southern, more opportunities should be available in non-conference scheduling. Lee already has scheduled a game at North Carolina next season and a three-game series against USC in 2015.

It is a lot to deal with for any program in any sport. In the ever-changing landscape of college athletics in general, it appears that College of Charleston has a coach in Monte Lee who can adjust, adapt and continue to succeed no matter the circumstances.

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