CHAD HOLBROOK knew 11 months ago, when he was named South Carolina’s next baseball coach, that there was only one way he could meet the expectations of the Gamecocks fan base.
His team needed to be playing in Omaha this weekend.
It is not.
“That’s the expectation. As long as I’m the coach, that’s going to be the expectation,” Holbrook said after USC fell one win short of reaching the College World Series with a Super Regional loss to North Carolina. “While in 63 games we did a lot of good, we fell short of our main goal. That’s going to burn me for awhile.”
It should not. All any fan should ask of a coach is for him to put the team in position to reach a goal or win a championship. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, as we found out in the Chapel Hill Super Regional, where USC’s generally steady defense unraveled to the tune of nine errors in three games.
By splitting the first two games, Holbrook put USC within striking distance of the College World Series. What coach, player or fan would not have accepted that position if guaranteed it on the first game of the season in mid-February?
The only better position USC could have found itself would have been as one of the top eight national seeds for the NCAA tournament and the host team for a Super Regional.
If USC fell short, it occurred during the regular season. The Gamecocks did not build a strong enough resume to earn a national seeding, which guarantees a host site for the regional and could do the same for a Super Regional.
A sign of a good team is one that takes care of business against lesser quality opponents. USC did that, without question. Against the Albanys, Riders and Charleston Southerns on the schedule, USC compiled a 20-3 record.
In a rare season for the SEC, there were four teams that generally were not competitive in league play. USC played at a high level in taking 11 of 12 games against Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia.
If you throw in the three-game sweep of the Columbia Regional against Saint Louis and Liberty — teams that could not match USC’s talent — the Gamecocks had a combined 34-4 record against opponents they should beat on most days. Again, that is the sign of a good team.
But that also means the Gamecocks were 9-16 against top-level opponents. That record included a sweep of Texas A&M, and two wins each against Clemson and LSU. That under-.500 record also explains why USC never was in the picture for a national seed and was considered a “bubble” team to be a regional host.
It also better supports the thinking that this was a solid USC team, but probably not a great one. Occasionally, USC displayed a glimpse of being an outstanding team, such as the series win at LSU.
Otherwise, the Gamecocks were about what one should expect from a program that lost the likes of Michael Roth, Matt Price and Christian Walker from the previous year. While many players had outstanding seasons in 2013, there never appeared to be one position player or pitcher who consistently stepped to the fore when the team needed it most.
That element separated USC from the rest of the NCAA tournament field over the previous three seasons. You just knew Roth would pitch his best game on the biggest stage, and Walker would produce a home run to win a big game, and Price would shut the door against the most-difficult opponent.
Despite that missing ingredient, USC was standing on the doorstep, ready to open the door and become the 14th team to appear in at least four consecutive College World Series.
Now, USC will aim to start a new streak next season. There is every reason to believe Holbrook will again put his team in position to return to Omaha. USC can better position itself next postseason by building a stronger regular-season resume and by hosting a Super Regional.
That is all fans should expect from Holbrook and his team.