Gene Sapakoff is a columnist and College Sports Editor at The Post and Courier.

Monte Lee, Mark Kingston (copy)

South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston (right) and Clemson head coach Monte Lee have watched their teams struggle in 2019, but there are reasons to expect much better things in 2020. File/John A. Carlos II /Special to The Post and Courier

Hank Aaron hadn’t broken Babe Ruth’s career home run record yet. Bill Walton had just led the UCLA basketball dynasty to another national championship.

South Carolina head baseball coach Mark Kingston had just turned 3.

Clemson head coach Monte Lee wouldn’t make his diaper debut for another four years.

It was 1973, the last year an NCAA baseball tournament went on without either South Carolina or Clemson involved.

It might happen again this century.

We can’t depend on the Gamecocks, 24-20 overall, 5-16 in the SEC and losers of all seven of their SEC series going into this weekend’s home games against No. 3 Vanderbilt.

Clemson at 27-18 and 12-12 in the ACC, just snapped a nine-game ACC losing streak. That’s the worst stretch of Tiger baseball since an 11-game skid in 2008, the last time Clemson failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

“I would probably have Clemson in as of today, but barely in,” Kendall Rogers of wrote this week. “The Tigers clearly need to finish the season in strong fashion to make the field of 64.”

What in the name of Michael Roth and Khalil Greene and Jackie Bradley Jr. and all those juicy steaks in Omaha is going on here?

Answer: Panic — and strongly-worded letters and tweets — from the national championship trophies display in the plaza at The Ray to the Cajun Café at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

But allow for some 2020 vision.

Both teams should be way better – Omaha contender better – next year.

Give it a season or so before giving up on Lee or Kingston, a pair of good coaches likely to make progress with the combination of young rosters and recruiting adjustments tilted toward the junior college ranks.

Help on the way

Kingston proved last year that he knows how to coach, guiding the Gamecocks to within one win of the College World Series in his first season in Columbia. If the roster he inherited was packed with big-league talent, the previous coach wouldn’t have been fired.

Kingston and recruiting coordinator Mike Current, on Kingston’s staff at South Florida, have adjusted to the combat that is SEC recruiting.

“Whether it was at Tulane or South Florida and now at South Carolina, we’re going to go after the best players we can get,” Kingston said this week.

The Gamecocks’ Class of 2019 junior college recruits is elite, with six commits ranked in the Perfect Game rating of the top 35 JC prospects. That includes pitchers Andrew Peters, Thomas Farr, Luke Little and Brannon Johnson, infielder Ivan Johnson and outfielder Noah Myers.

Clemson currently is No. 20 in Perfect Game’s ranking of Class of 2019 recruiting classes factoring in only high school players (South Carolina is No. 41) and Lee is tweaking his approach to allow for more JC talent.

Clemson has had a few key JC transfers in Lee’s three seasons, including Chris Williams, Ryan Miller and Jeremy Beasley. A few more might have helped. A solid high school/JC balance was a key to his success at the College of Charleston, which didn’t have the luxury of getting exceptionally early commitments from high school players but was able to fill holes with later JC signings.

“Moving forward, I don’t think that’s a bad model,” Lee said this week. “We’re going to try and be a little bit more patient (with JC prospects).”

Goal: Road regional rage


Both the Tigers and Gamecocks have suffered from pitching injuries. Both have trouble getting starting pitchers deep into games.

Clemson lost projected Friday night starter Spencer Strider to elbow surgery just before the season started. Starter Brooks Crawford, injured in the South Carolina series, has been limited to 23⅔ innings since then.

South Carolina has been without Logan Chapman, Julian Bosnic and Graham Lawson all season and got only one early appearance out of Ridge Chapman.

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Among the “positives” Kingston talks about are seniors Jacob Olson, TJ Hopkins, Chris Cullen, Lawson, Ridge Chapman and Gage Hinson.

Lee loves the makeup of his core veteran group led by Logan Davidson, Grayson Byrd, Jordan Greene and Kyle Wilkie.

The 2019 pitching opportunities for freshmen at both schools — notably Brett Kerry and Cam Tringali at South Carolina and Davis Sharpe and Keyshawn Askew at Clemson — bode well for the future.

No prediction here that the Gamecocks will storm into the 2019 NCAA Tournament. But this is that difficult transition year for Kingston; it gets better.

Lee has won an ACC championship and three regional host spots in his three years at Clemson. There has been gradual ACC improvement until this season, which is hardly a lost cause.

The Tigers’ 11-7 win on Sunday at No. 10 Georgia Tech snapped the ACC losing streak. It came in a game Clemson trailed 7-3 and gives the team something good to think about for a spring break that ends with a two-game weekend series against Gardner-Webb.

Note that six of the losses during the nine-game streak were by two runs or less or in extra innings.

“It’s the toughest stretch that I have ever been through as a head coach and I would be willing to bet the toughest stretch any of these players have been through,” Lee said. “To see the way we competed on Sunday, given the circumstances, made me very, very proud of them. We had been trying too hard to fix our problems: overswinging, overthrowing. But Sunday, we just competed.”

The aberration is less that Clemson is 12-12 in ACC play and more the 11-3 start with series wins over teams currently ranked No. 7 (Louisville) and No. 14 (North Carolina).

But beware the regional host that gets a capable Clemson team with road rage.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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