SOUTH CAROLINA baseball coach Chad Holbrook understands the situation.
After his team dropped the final game to lose the series to No. 1 LSU, he surveyed the landscape. The Gamecocks finished the regular season with a 32-24 record. More significantly, they compiled a 13-17 mark in the SEC.
That’s the first losing season in conference play since 1997, the first season for former coach and current athletics director Ray Tanner. The 17 straight seasons of .500 or above were a remarkable accomplishment in college baseball’s strongest conference. Holbrook, who served as an assistant to Tanner for four seasons before taking over as coach before the 2013 season, hated to see the streak end.
“I’m frustrated. I hurt for my players, I hurt for my coaches and I hurt for the former players that have put on this uniform,” Holbrook said. “We’ve prided ourselves on having a winning record in SEC play for 17 straight years so, yeah, it hurts. South Carolina shouldn’t be in this spot, and I take responsibility for that. I’m going to get it fixed. We can start the process on Tuesday.”
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Tuesday is the first day of the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., where South Carolina will have to play well through the weekend or else another couple of important streaks will end. Since the 1999 season, the Gamecocks have tallied 15 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament and 40-win seasons.
That run, which included Tanner and Holbrook guiding USC to national championships in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, is in serious peril. Holbrook isn’t ducking the things that went wrong in the regular season, which included seven losses in 10 SEC series, a series loss to Clemson and four midweek losses.
“In this league, there are no excuses,” he said. “You’ve just got to play, and we haven’t been able to play over the course of 56 games as good of baseball as expected.”
A surprise run for the No. 10 seed in the conference tournament could change that, especially if the Gamecocks can find a way to make it to the NCAA Tournament. But if that doesn’t happen, the solution – as it is in every sport – will be better recruiting. One look at LSU’s imposing lineup told you that.
But Holbrook also doesn’t need to look any further than the LSU program for some reassurance things can get better quickly. Paul Mainieri, who has served as coach at St. Thomas (Fla.), Air Force, Notre Dame and LSU, knows how tough it is to win big every season.
In 2009, his third season at LSU, the Tigers won the national championship. The 2010 team finished eighth in the SEC with a 14-16 record before winning the conference tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. But his 2011 team went 13-17 in the league and missed both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. In 2012, the Tigers were a national seed but lost a Super Regional at home to underdog Stony Brook.
Today, of course, the Tigers are back to No. 1 in the national rankings.
“I talked to Chad before our first game and had a nice little visit with him. He had this misconception that in my 33-year coaching career we have all these great years every year. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s a tough business,” Mainieri said. “All you can do is point the kids in the right direction and try to inspire and motivate them and let them go out there and play. Some years, it doesn’t work so well.”
This year it’s working out quite well for the Tigers, and Mainieri sees better days ahead for the Gamecocks, who have the winning tradition and great facility to get back on top.
“I’ve had plenty of years when it’s been a struggle. That’s why you enjoy it when you’ve got a team that’s capable of winning every day,” Mainieri said. “I know Chad is an excellent coach. This is a premier program that Ray Tanner built. South Carolina is always going to be good. I think they’re good right now. They’ll go out to Hoover and represent well.”
South Carolina, with an unofficial RPI of No. 59, must get hot in Hoover, where the program is 2-10 the past five seasons. Holbrook realizes the Gamecocks will have their bubble burst on selection day unless they can put together a great run.
“We put ourselves in this position,” he said. “Some games got away from us early in the year that we’d probably like to have right now, and we wouldn’t be in this spot. But this is where we are. We’ve got to fight for our life on Tuesday and see if we can play some inspired baseball.”
WHO: USC (32-24, 13-17 SEC) vs. Missouri (29-26, 15-15)
WHEN: Tuesday, Approx. 2 p.m.; winner faces Vanderbilt on Thursday
TV: SEC Network