COLUMBIA — When it was finally over, this first step that is now a rite of late spring, Chad Holbrook disappeared from view.
Two months ago, he didn’t know if he would be here, encircled by his taller players after winning an NCAA tournament regional. Even when South Carolina overcame injuries to host this round, sleep did not come easily for Holbrook recently. If USC stumbled in a home regional, his first season leading a proud college baseball power would be labeled a dud, by some.
The conclusion of USC’s 6-4 win Monday afternoon over Liberty certainly stressed Holbrook as much as anything has all year. With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Liberty put runners at the corners, having already scored a run in the inning.
But closer Tyler Webb got a swinging strikeout to end the game and let Holbrook exhale. Holbrook had to wait for this relief, because the game was suspended by thunderstorms Sunday night with USC up 4-2 entering the bottom of the fifth.
Holbrook hid his weary eyes with sunglasses moments later as he spoke to his players along the first base line, their reflections visible in the sunglasses’ black lenses. Maybe this group will leave an indelible image at USC, by bringing the Gamecocks to a fourth straight College World Series, unprecedented in their history. Maybe they won’t. But here they are again, one of the final 16 teams standing.
“I told you before this event started that it was five one-game winning streaks away from the College World Series,” Holbrook told the players, as he recalled later. “And now we’re down to two.”
Win two in this weekend’s best-of-three super regional, and USC heads back to Omaha.
Holbrook came to USC from North Carolina for the 2009 season, and spent four years being the “good cop” assistant coach on Ray Tanner’s staff. When Tanner ripped a player in practice, he asked Holbrook to boost the kid’s spirits. “Go take care of him,” Tanner would say. Holbrook had to slightly alter his demeanor this season, but remains, at his core, a players’ coach.
Since fall practices, he tried to give sophomore Tanner English confidence that he could handle a play that required chutzpah — bunting for a single with a runner on third base and two outs. Holbrook frequently encouraged him to do it on his own, without a signal from the dugout, because English is fast enough to beat the throw to first.
In Monday’s fifth inning, USC stretched its lead to 5-2 on Graham Saiko’s single. Two batters later, up came English, with two outs and Saiko on third. Liberty’s pitcher, Blake Fulghum, lacked the overpowering velocity that would make bunting tough. And English noticed the first baseman move in, but only slightly.
“I figured I could drop it in and make him make a play,” English said. “If Graham read it, then I knew he’d be able to score.”
Everything aligned perfectly, even Fulghum’s first pitch, an outside change-up — the ideal location for English to bunt toward first base. Liberty never had a chance, and Saiko scored to put USC up 6-2 — a valuable cushion.
“I was proud that (English) had the courage to do it,” Holbrook said.
Winning a regional might feel routine at USC. Given history, it’s certainly easy — though misguided — to regard it as such. The Gamecocks are in their 11th super regional in 14 years, courtesy of their 27th consecutive home tournament win, dating to 2002 — a national record, according to ESPN.
The NCAA tournament’s 64-team format debuted in 1999, and since then, USC has advanced in all nine of its home regionals, with a 28-2 record. All-time, USC has advanced in 19 of its 21 home NCAA tournament rounds, and is 58-8 in tournament home games. Moreover, USC didn’t have to play No. 2 seed Clemson in this year’s regional.
But breezy as this perhaps seemed, it most certainly was not for Holbrook. He began this season in a daunting position, replacing a legend and leading a team that finished first, first and second at the past three College World Series. Gone were major pieces from those teams: Michael Roth, Matt Price, Evan Marzilli and Christian Walker.
Holbrook heard the grumbles when USC started 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference. He winced as his closer, ace starting pitcher, first baseman, second baseman and entire outfield missed time with injuries. Yet he endured, and the Gamecocks won twice at LSU to end April, bolstering their regional host resume. They won 16 of their final 23 SEC games, and despite closing the regular season 1-4, they again swept a regional.
“I had some concerns in March and April if we were going to be able to survive,” Holbrook said. “Psychologically, (the LSU series) probably put our mind in a better place.”
His players were dispersing Monday, English off to go fishing with a couple of teammates, others planning to watch North Carolina’s game. Holbrook had congratulatory messages to return. His cell phone was filling with them, from USC players he never even coached.
While past accomplishments created lofty expectations for Holbrook’s first season, they offered no assurances. This would be his team to mold, and his alone. Through all the uncertainty this spring, he kept telling his players, about the NCAA tournament, “Let’s just get there.”
There is now here, and the Gamecocks are moving on again, ready to go further.