South Carolina baseball coach Mark Kingston faced a tall order in his first season with the Gamecocks in 2018 — He was taking over one of the sport’s most storied programs that hadn’t missed back-to-back NCAA tournaments in more than 20 years.
He exceeded just about everyone’s expectations with a Super Regional berth, one win short of the College World Series.
But rather than building off that finish and automatically expecting more in his second go-around, Kingston is, at least in some ways, starting from scratch. The Gamecocks are turning over their entire weekend rotation and the majority of their starting lineup, thanks to a combination of the MLB draft, graduations and transfers.
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“From a personnel standpoint, it feels like we’re starting at square one for sure because we gotta figure out a lot of different positions and combinations of lineups,” Kingston acknowledged.
In many other ways, however, Kingston feels far more comfortable this year having the benefit of a season’s experience under his belt.
“In terms of having been now through the SEC, having seen what our crowds are like, having seen what’s the media like, all those things, it does feel like it’s Year 2 and you have a better feel for what is expected and how to handle things,” Kingston said. “But from a personnel standpoint — at the end of the day, that’s what’s most important, who’s on the field playing and making pitches and get hits — from that point, we’ve taken a step back and it’s back to square one.”
From a mental standpoint, how much the Gamecocks can use last year’s success as a springboard for this season isn’t obvious. On one hand, Kingston and his returners have the benefit of lessons learned from their tournament run. On the other, newcomers will play a huge role in determining the Gamecocks’ identity, and there’s never any guarantee momentum will carry over after a long offseason.
“When I came in as a freshman, we were just coming off a Super Regional, and that’s one of the most talented teams I’ve ever been around,” junior reliever Sawyer Bridges said of the 2017 team that fell short of the NCAA tournament. “(But) there was just a trickle effect that happened during the season that no one could really explain and no one really thought was going to happen in the preseason, whereas last season we weren’t coming with any momentum from the year before.”
There is a huge lesson Kingston said he wants his team to carry over from last year, and it’s one he likely hopes the fan base embraces as well given all that turnover and talk of going back to “square one” in personnel.
“Don’t panic. There’s going to be tough times over the course of a long baseball season. We play many more games than football and basketball, so there’s going to be some bad days, you’re going to lay an egg sometimes,” Kingston said of his message. “It doesn’t define you if you have a bad day, you just have to keep working on the things that matter. You have to focus on what your process is and don’t panic, stay the course. We did that last year. We had some ups and downs but once everything came together and we got healthy and we figured out the right roles for guys, we were as good as anybody.
“There’s a good chance that might happen again this year. We have so many new names, so many roles to figure out, so many guys playing at this level for the first time, and so if we have some bumps in the road, it’s going to be very important to make sure we stay steady.”
See the Gamecocks in an intrasquad scrimmage at 3:30 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. All scrimmages are at Founders Park and are free and open to the public.
Fan Appreciation Day
After Saturday’s scrimmage, fans can meet the 2019 team and receive autographs on this year’s poster.
More key USC baseball dates
Feb. 9: Women’s clinic (details at SouthCarolinaBaseballCamps.com)
Feb. 15: Opening Day vs. Liberty, 4 p.m.
March 1-3: USC-Clemson series