Leggett can see sunshine on horizon

rmorris@ thestate.comJune 3, 2013 

JACK LEGGETT calls it PSD syndrome. It stands for Post Season Depression, and it is what Leggett has allowed himself to fall into for a couple of weeks following each of his 20 seasons as coach at Clemson.

When you expend every ounce of energy, every ounce of your being into planning, scouting, coaching, counseling and teaching a team virtually year-round, the letdown when it ends can be — well, downright depressing.

But the end to the 2013 season, which came to a screeching halt following Sunday’s 3-1 loss to Liberty in the losers’ bracket of the Columbia Regional, was not nearly as cloudy and dark as years past for Leggett. In fact, Leggett was seeing a whole lot of sunshine on the Clemson baseball horizon.

“Once I get past today,” Leggett said, “I’m going to choose to look at this as a really positive year, and a positive future. For those real positive Clemson people that we have, I hope they are feeling real good about what we have ahead of us.”

They should.

Assuming the return of two possible major-league draft picks — third baseman Shane Kennedy and second baseman Steve Wilkerson — Clemson will lose one starter from its regular lineup and one frontline player from its pitching staff.

Senior center fielder Thomas Brittle contributed a .265 batting average and 44 runs scored, and senior right-hander Scott Firth posted a 6-5 record and 3.23 ERA. There is a good chance that is all Clemson will miss from a team that somehow earned a 16th 40-win season under Leggett.

Leggett laughs when asked if this was his youngest team. When you pencil seven players into a starting lineup who have never played in an NCAA regional tournament, you are fielding one of the most youthful teams in the country.

At times, it showed. Clemson struggled early in the season as it attempted to establish footing with inexperienced players around the field and on the pitcher’s mound. The Tigers were 16-11 when they appeared to grow up and mature on one evening in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Clemson won that game, 5-4 in 11 innings against top-ranked North Carolina. Including that game, the Tigers went on a tear, winning 23 of 27 games. It did not matter that most of those wins were against unranked opponents. What mattered was Leggett’s young team was learning how to win.

Even though Clemson did not play poorly down the stretch, it did lose seven of its final eight games, perhaps the result of a team loaded with players who had never performed in pressure-packed situations.

By season’s end, Clemson had five wins against teams that hosted NCAA regional tournaments. Nearly half of its season win total came against teams that reached the NCAA tournament. Sixteen wins were credited to freshmen pitchers.

“Our young guys have been very mature from the day they showed up on campus, very motivated, very hungry and didn’t take anything for granted, didn’t expect anything and they weren’t handed anything,” Leggett said. “They’ve worked hard from day one.

“These are a lot of good, young freshmen. They’re all good players now, and they’re going to be the nucleus of this team in the future. They’ve all had some really good moments this year, and some of them have had some freshmen moments. But for the most part, they’ve been the nucleus of this ball club.”

Granted, there are no guarantees that any of Clemson’s freshmen will be significantly improved next season. But you have to believe a year’s worth of struggles and experience will lead to marked improvement next season and beyond.

Frankly, not much was expected of this Clemson squad. Yet the Tigers reached the NCAA tournament. They could very well have been a regional host team had a 14-inning loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament turned the other way.

The reality is the Tigers probably advanced further than should be expected from a program in rebuilding mode.

Perhaps the sinking feeling in the stomachs of Clemson players following Sunday’s season-ending loss will serve as another step in the program’s maturation process.

“You never forget about these feelings. You never forget about how you feel when you lose a ball game or how the season ends,” Leggett said. “So it’s always a motivating factor.

“Nobody wants to feel like this, especially when it’s your life and what you do. It’s what’s in your DNA. It’s what’s in your makeup. It’s what you think about every single day of your life.”

Only this time, it likely was much easier for Leggett to shake that feeling by turning his head to the past and looking to the future.

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