COLUMBIA - Chad Holbrook had just settled in for some late-night viewing of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon when Kyle Martin called. His first thought?

"This can't be good," Holbrook said.

You know the saying nothing good ever happens in the middle of the night? Same thing goes for coaches. They live by this rule, cringe any time their phone rings after bedtime. It's instinctual, simply the way they're wired.

Holbrook expected to hear bad news from Martin, who was weighing whether to return for his senior season or sign with the Los Angeles Angels as a 20th-round draft pick. When the coach answered his phone, he was surprised.

"You get late-night calls from players it's usually not going your way, but I could tell he had a little pep in his voice," Holbrook said. "He seemed relieved, he seemed excited. So I knew what he was getting ready to tell me. He's not a good poker player."

Martin told his coach he would wear a South Carolina uniform next season, returning to be a senior leader for a program with legitimate aspirations of returning to the College World Series. Martin is the final piece to a national championship contender, a well-rounded first baseman that can anchor the Gamecocks' infield and batting lineup.

The numbers show how important Martin is to South Carolina. He led the Gamecocks with a .336 batting average. He was a member of the NCAA Columbia Regional all-tournament team, batting .437 in the postseason with five RBIs.

Most important, he'll be the only position player in South Carolina's program with College World Series experience.

"Obviously, we've got a lot to take care of, and we want to go back next year and work as hard as we can to get as far as we can next year," Martin said. "I'm going to try my best to lead this team in the right direction and get us as far as we can go."

Martin said it was the hardest decision he's ever made. Tougher, even, than deciding which college to attend. Playing professional baseball has been Martin's dream since he first picked up a bat. For three days, he stared that dream in the face, on the verge of realizing everything he's worked to achieve.

Early on, Martin said he was leaning toward signing with the Angels. He sat with his parents, weighed the pros and cons. He spoke with former South Carolina players who have faced the same decision. Martin said he fully expected to be picked in the first 10 rounds of the draft. If he was, Martin said there would have been no debate. He would have gone pro, opening a new chapter in his life.

Instead, he stood still while six South Carolina players took the next step. Catcher Grayson Greiner, third baseman Joey Pankake, center fielder Tanner English, closer Joel Seddon, pitchers Jordan Montgomery and Evan Beal - all were Martin's peers for the past three seasons. All will be gone when Martin remains here next year.

"They're great ball players, and I enjoyed playing with them," Martin said. "I was looking forward to moving up with them, but the opportunity didn't present itself the way I'd hoped. It is tough coming back without them because we're losing some great players, but at the same time we're going to work as hard as we can."

Martin wasn't the only one who thought he'd be drafted in the first 10 rounds. Holbrook said he never expected the possibility Martin could return for his senior season. He recruits players to have three-year careers at South Carolina, expecting they'll have a chance to go pro after their junior seasons.

Anything more is a coach's blessing.

It's why Holbrook said he reacted to Martin's phone call by hopping off his couch, jumping with joy in the middle of the night. He had recruited Martin hard the past week, practically begged him to return. There was no overstating his excitement once the star first baseman chose to stay on the East Coast instead of moving out West.

"I've been feeling sorry for myself the last couple weeks with the way we played down the stretch and in the tournament. We needed some good news," Holbrook said. "I felt like we'd won a big-time series on the road, or we'd just won a regional. When you get a player like that back, it's extremely important. It totally changes the dynamic of your team for next year."