Now it's official.
The South Carolina baseball team will not be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. When bids were handed out Monday afternoon, the Gamecocks were not one of the 64 teams on the receiving end.
The 32-25 record left this team on the outside looking in and left followers of the program wondering how this could have happened just three years removed from three consecutive trips to the College World Series championship finals.
A program with great tradition and one of the nation's best facilities in Carolina Stadium, the Gamecocks reached the NCAA tournament 30 times from 1974 to 2014, including 11 visits to Omaha. The run from 2010 to 2012 provided the pinnacle of USC's success, which included two national championships and an NCAA record of 22 consecutive tournament wins.
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Chad Holbrook, who was a big part of that run as an assistant, guided USC to the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons as a head coach before falling short this season. But people who believed this program would never experience a down season again should understand this is part of the ebb and flow of sports, especially college baseball, where full scholarships aren't awarded.
Perennial power LSU won the national championship in 2009 but didn't make the NCAA tournament in 2011 with a 36-20 record. UCLA, which lost to the Gamecocks to the 2010 CWS finals, won the national championship in 2013 but didn't make the NCAA tournament in 2014 with a 25-30-1 record. Oregon State won back-to-back national titles in 2006-07 but didn't make the 2008 NCAA tournament after posting a 28-24 record.
Here's the real question: Is this season an anomaly for the Gamecocks or the start of a downward trend? Aaron Fitt, a national writer for D1Baseball.com, answers this way.
"I think this is an anomaly," Fitt said. "Injuries obviously played a role, and certainly some key players underachieved, but I still like South Carolina’s foundation and expect it to bounce back strong next year."
He added the Gamecocks, who went 13-17 in the SEC and also lost four midweek games to in-state opponents, also fell victim to a changing landscape in college baseball.
"It sounds like a cliché, but there is more parity than ever, and it is much, much harder than it once was to be good every year -- especially in the SEC," Fitt said. "I know that’s not a satisfying answer for South Carolina fans, but that is the reality. Every once in a while, down years happen."
Looking for an example of the SEC's depth? Eight different teams have claimed at least a share of the regular-season conference championship over the last 10 seasons.
And that parity in college baseball extends much further. Programs that don't play in the power conferences such as the College of Charleston of the Colonial Athletic Association and Coastal Carolina of the Big South can compete at the highest levels of the game. Both teams both received at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.
For the Gamecocks to start a new NCAA tournament streak next season will require some work, especially with a handful of this team's best players not returning due to graduation, the MLB draft and injury. The incoming recruiting class will need to supply immediate help, and the returning players will need to show significant improvement.
The coaching staff never could settle on a lineup, which added to the inconsistency of a team that struggled to score runs. Five different players started in left field, four different players started at second base, and three different players started at shortstop, third base and catcher.
The same thing occurred on the pitching side, where 11 different starters were used and bullpen roles never seemed to be clearly defined. The season-ending injury to right-hander Wil Crowe in mid-April left a huge void in filling innings.
All of that combined to leave USC supporters with an empty feeling Monday for the first time in 16 years.