What Mark Kingston learned from, thinks about South Carolina’s difficult year
When South Carolina baseball saw its 2018 season end in Fayetteville, Akransas, one win short of a College World Series berth, the emotion on the field was raw as a large group of upperclassmen celebrated the team’s second-half resurgence, reminisced about their time in the program and reflected on the frustrations of making it so far and yet still falling short of the ultimate goal.
When South Carolina baseball finished its 2019 season in Hoover, Alabama, on Tuesday, the atmosphere was slightly more muted — the Gamecocks’ overall record of 28-28 was its worst in nearly a quarter of a century, and injuries and inexperience meant coach Mark Kingston’s club limped past the finish line.
And while Kingston pushed back against the idea that he felt any relief with the end of what had become a disappointing slog of a season, there wasn’t much in the way of positive spin on the year’s outcome, at least in the short term.
“I don’t know that we learned anything new that we needed to learn anything,” Kingston said of this season’s experience. “I think it shows you have to be good in every area to be good in this league. This league does not allow anything other than excellence in pitching, defense and offense to compete. There are really good teams that finished 10th and 11th in this league. So you just have to be good in every area. When you are, you got a chance, and when you survive this league, then you got a chance to go to Omaha.”
And especially for the team’s three seniors, last year’s disappointing but hopeful end was decidedly more bitter than sweet this time around.
“It’s definitely tough. It’s not the year we wanted to have,” senior first baseman Chris Cullen said. “Everyone’s goal is to go to Omaha at the beginning of the year, and you want to do everything you can to get there, and we’re not happy with how we finished this year.”
Both Kingston and Cullen pointed to the determination and fight of the 2019 squad as what they hope it will be remembered for. But there’s also hope that this year, as disappointing as it was, can be remembered several years down the line for laying the groundwork for future successes.
“The future, everyone’s gonna be a year older,” in 2020, sophomore catcher Luke Berryhill said. “I know for me and a lot of guys on the team, it was the first year at a big SEC team. It’s just a learning experience, and I learned a lot this year and I’m sure a lot of other guys did. We’re gonna take that experience and everyone’s going to improve in the fall.”
Kingston pointed to the experience on the SEC’s top four teams — Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Georgia — as a model he hopes South Carolina will follow in the next few seasons.
“Obviously we’ll be adding a lot of guys to (the 2020 roster), but there’s a lot of young guys, a lot of guys who were playing at this level for the first time. Whether they were guys that were coming from JUCO or freshmen, a lot of guys were playing at this level for the first time, and I think you’ll see a common thread of the top four teams that got a bye this week, they got a lot of old guys that have been through the battles,” Kingston said.
When asked if he thought Omaha would be a realistic goal for 2020, Kingston demurred, saying he would always be optimistic and never rule out any potential success before a season begins.
For someone leaving the program like Cullen, though, the optimism for 2020 is already very real.
“It’s an incredible future. These young guys, they got talent, they work hard and they’re figuring out the system, so now they have experience in the SEC, they know what it’s about. I have all the confidence in the world that they’ll have a great year next year,” Cullen said.