Madison Stokes after NCAA tourney loss: 'I wouldn't trade this team for anything'
But despite falling one win short of the College World Series, USC's players uniformly described the 2018 campaign as a success, especially praising first-year coach Mark Kingston for his job leading the club from a 20-17 record midway through the season to an NCAA Super Regional berth.
"If I could go all over and do it again, I'd do it tomorrow, I'd start the season out just as bad as we did. I wouldn't change anything about it," senior catcher Hunter Taylor said. "For the past however many weeks, we've battled our tails off. It's unbelievable what we've done and how we did it, and I wouldn't change a thing."
Throughout February, March and the first half of April, Carolina seemed almost certain to miss the postseason for the third time in four years, something that hasn't happened for USC since 1996-1999.
The low point was a midweek loss to Presbyterian, which dropped Kingston's team within three games of .500 and raised doubts among fans as to whether the squad could make the SEC tournament.
"After the loss to PC, Coach took away our video lounge, and that was just the turning point for us," junior pitcher Ridge Chapman said. "We just knew we had to change something, and everything just clicked and we just starting fighting for one another and loving one another."
After that loss, USC won five consecutive SEC series and finished the year on a 17-9 tear, coming the closest it's been to the CWS since 2013. According to junior shortstop LT Tolbert, it won't be long before Kingston and the Gamecocks get there.
"He was successful where he came from for a reason, and I knew that all along, and that's why, even during our struggles early in the season, I never had a doubt about this team and him being the leader of this team," Tolbert said. "He's going to be the leader of this team for a long time to come, and he's going to make it to Omaha and they're going to win multiple national championships. I have zero doubt about that."
Senior third baseman Jonah Bride agreed that the Gamecocks are primed for more success under Kingston, even as 10 players were selected in the MLB draft recently.
"Very excited for the future. With the group of guys they got coming back, the coaching staff, everything, everything's in place to be successful, and I know that the guys coming back next year will remember this feeling and will put the work in to ensure it doesn't happen again," Bride said.
Bride's confidence stems in large part from his confidence in Kingston and the way the coach methodically challenged the team to become better, rescuing the season.
"We were 20-17, like he said, we looked like we were dead," Bride said. "To come back and make this kind of run, he never lost confidence in his guys, everyone stayed confident, we continued to work every day. That definitely says a lot."
And while the Gamecocks ended 2018 in disappointing fashion, losing a 14-4 rout, senior second baseman Justin Row took a long-term view of what this season will mean, even as he and many of his fellow upperclassmen prepare to leave Columbia.
"Obviously, it was a lot of fun, but it wasn't our goal. Our goal was to get to Omaha, and we fell short.But I think we paved a good way for these young kids and the guys coming in of what this program expects and what they're going to need to do in the next couple years to be successful," Row said.
For senior infielder Madison Stokes, who grew up in Columbia and watched the Gamecocks make three consecutive trips to Omaha in 2010-2012, falling short of a return trip in his final chance stung, but the season did mark a return to form for the program.
"We created a family here. We started something great," Stokes said.