COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Gamecock baseball team has advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals after missing the NCAA tournament last season. First year head coach Mark Kingston has done a fantastic job getting the Gamecock Baseball team heading back in the right direction.
Last season, under Coach Chad Holbrook, the Gamecocks finished with a 35-25 overall record, and had a losing record in SEC play going 13-17 in the conference. This was the second time in three seasons the Gamecocks missed the NCAA tournament. When Holbrook took over the Gamecock program from Ray Tanner, the club had been to the National Championship finals for three years in a row, and had won two National Championships. With Holbrook at the helm the amount of success for one of the premier programs in college baseball declined rapidly. Holbrook and the University “parted ways” after last season and Mark Kingston was hired by Ray Tanner to right the ship.
And right the ship he has. Quickly. Much quicker than anyone, even the most loyal Gamecock, could have thought he would. The Gamecocks finished with a winning record in conference play in the regular season, and even won a game in the conference tournament. However, the season didn’t get off to the best start.
The Gamecocks dropped the season opener at home against VMI, before eventually winning the series, and then they lost to Furman in a midweek contest before losing two out of three to instate rival Clemson. The Gamecocks conference schedule also got off to a very rough start as they lost two out of three to Florida at home, and then were swept by the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. South Carolina would rebound to sweep Tennessee, before losing two of three to Kentucky and Arkansas.
After the loses to Arkansas, the Gamecocks came back to Columbia and took on Presbyterian College, from Clinton, SC, in a midweek contest. I called that game on the radio for the Blue Hose Radio Network, so I saw this game up close and personal. That night the Gamecocks looked awful. They struggled at the plate, and left a bunch of runners stranded on the base paths. Failure to score runs had been a major problem for this team in the previous few years under Holbrook, and it looked as if that was going to carryover to this season. They just couldn’t find that big hit to push the runs across. It was becoming a major problem.
As I was packing up the equipment that night to head back home, I said out loud in the press box, “this team will be lucky to have a winning record.” I thought there was no way this team would make the NCAA tournament. They just couldn’t score the runs. Defense does win championships, but if you cannot score at all, you cannot win.
Little did I, or anybody for that matter, know at that very moment, or sometime shortly thereafter, the Gamecocks would flip a switch. I do not know who flipped it or what caused it to be flipped, but whatever happened we saw a completely different team that weekend when the Gamecocks hosted LSU. The Tigers came into Founders Park in Columbia ranked number nineteen in the country, and this Carolina team that had been struggling to score put up thirty runs in three games, sweeping LSU. The next weekend they traveled to Vanderbilt and took two out of three games from the Commodores who were ranked number seventeen in the country at the time. The very next weekend Carolina returned home and won the series against number four Ole Miss. They would end the regular season winning series against Missouri and a very good Texas A&M team. The team that had struggled for at least two and a half seasons finding much offense, was all of a sudden rolling.
When selection day for the NCAA tournament rolled around it was announced that South Carolina would travel to Greenville, NC and be a part of the regional hosted by East Carolina. The Gamecocks would be the two seed in that regional and would face Ohio State in the first game. The Carolina offense struggled in the early going of that game, and seemed to be unable to find anyway to score a run. They finally found a away in the seventh inning, scoring five runs that inning and three in the eighth to beat the Buckeyes 8-3. Carolina had fourteen hits in that game.
The second game went a lot smoother for South Carolina when they took on regional host ECU. The Gamecocks scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning, and Cody Morris pitched a gem to lead Carolina to a 4-2 victory. The Gamecocks claimed the regional title, and a berth to the super regionals on Monday by defeating UNC Wilmington 8-4 in a game that started off sloppy but ended with a bang.
Now the Gamecocks will travel to Fayetteville, Arkansas to take on the Razorbacks in the Supers. Carolina visited Arkansas back in early April and lost two out of three games. However, this Carolina team is a different team than the team the visited Arkansas in April. This team can score. Carolina scored two runs all weekend last time they went to Arkansas. You read that right, two runs in THREE games. The weather in April in Arkansas was bad too. It was a cold and rainy weekend. I’m willing to bet it’s not going to be cold this weekend. This should be a great Super Regional.
The job Coach Kingston has done in his first year at the helm is nothing short of remarkable. A lot of folks questioned Ray Tanner hiring Mark Kingston. I did not. I did question the hiring of Will Muschamp, however that seems to be working too, but I did not question Tanner on Kingston. Ray Tanner knows baseball. He knows a good coach when he sees one. People say, “Well he hired Holbrook,” and yes he did. I think Holbrook is a good coach, but he just didn’t fit at South Carolina at the time. Expectations were extremely high and he had to follow legend, and that’s never easy.
I think Tanner might have made the right hire this time. I will stop short of saying it was a great hire though. While it is not fair to judge a coach based on one bad season, we should also not rush to judge a coach’s job on one good season. He still has to get his players in the program, ones that he recruits himself. Right now though, it appears Tanner may have got this one right. Time will tell. Kingston should have been SEC Coach of the Year.