From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

John A. Carlos II (copy)

Mark Kingston begins his fourth season as head baseball coach at South Carolina. John Carlos/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — Mark Kingston says there’s a difference.

“You can feel it as pressure or you can feel it as a challenge. The challenge in this job is, ‘Let’s get to a regional, let’s get to Omaha,’” South Carolina’s fourth-year baseball coach said. “Pressure is being a doctor these days, pressure is being a nurse these days.”

He was asked if he was under pressure to get the Gamecocks, ranked No. 18 in the preseason, back to the NCAA Regionals, a goal they’ve shockingly missed in three of the past five seasons. Kingston made it within one game of the College World Series in his first season, missed the regionals in his second and nobody knows what would have happened last year, as the pandemic stopped the season after 16 games.

He denied feeling any pressure, yet nearly in the same breath spoke about the expectations of Gamecock baseball.

“The expectation here is to win a national championship,” he said. “I want them to feel like 18 is underrated for us. The standard here is very well set and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Well-said, and Kingston doesn’t have his head in the sand. He walks into work every day past two national championship trophies he didn’t win, and the guy who did is his boss. His office window has a center view of USC’s rich CWS history etched on the Founders Park scoreboard.

There is pressure, because of those expectations. And it’s going to be there whether he recognizes it or not, most because of the program he took over, and some because of that program’s status within the USC athletic department.

Baseball has always been USC’s salvation, the sport to look forward to after miserable football and men’s basketball seasons. There have been amazing years on the gridiron, magnificent seasons on the hardwood and conversely, disappointing seasons on the diamond.

But by and large, baseball has been the one sport at USC to set the watch by. Even before it became the best program in the country from 2010-12, it was as assured as Meryl Streep being nominated for an Oscar that USC baseball would win 40 games and be in the NCAA Regionals. It soothed the sting from another 5-7 football season or 16-15 basketball season.

Which is why it’s been so stunning to see how quickly it ended. The Gamecocks were two wins away from winning a third straight national championship in 2012, then a bad inning away from the 2013 CWS after Chad Holbrook took over for coach-turned-AD Ray Tanner.

USC missed the postseason in 2015, reached a Super Regional in 2016, missed again in 2017. Holbrook “resigned” and Kingston was hired. He took an overachieving team to a Super Regional.

Then a talent-bare team went 28-28 in 2019 and while it started 12-4 in 2020, it lost a home series to Northwestern, which has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1957, and the annual series to Clemson.

This year, there is a jaw-dropping infusion of talent. The Gamecocks have been rewarded in the preseason Top 25 due to it. Expectations are high, because it’s USC and because it’s deeply wanted, and deeply needed, for this team to win big.

“That’s what we came here for,” junior Brady Allen said.

That’s going to create intense pressure, whether Kingston admits it or not.

“When you’re in the big leagues, when you’re in the NFL, when you’re in the SEC, you know what you’re in for. If I look like I’m feeling pressure, that will trickle down to the team, and that doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said. “Pressure is more outside stuff and it’s not productive when you’re trying to get a team ready.”

It is unfair to ask baseball to lift USC’s athletic reputation, because it’s so successful in many other sports. It’s also unfair to only consider football, men’s basketball and baseball as “the sports that matter” and ignore those fantastically successful others, yet that’s the financial reality. Those three sports make money, thus providing the funds for the others, and if those teams don’t win, the athletic department suffers.

They hurt worse when they have prolonged losing stretches in those three sports, as USC has since 2017. And this year, there’s already been one coaching change, a gloomy scene unfolding in men’s basketball and Tanner, the same guy who judges Kingston, dealing with an increasingly frustrated fan base. It’s not like they’re making future decisions (except with their pocketbooks), but the situation is reaching critical mass.

The Gamecocks’ SEC schedule features series against teams ranked 1st, 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, 14th and 19th in the preseason. Four of those series are on the road.

The non-conference schedule also presents challenges: a three-game series at No. 12 Texas, three games against Clemson and three against Mercer, one of only four Division I teams that has won at least 35 games every year for the past decade. 

The Gamecocks are expected to win, and the Gamecocks need to win. There hasn’t been much for USC fans to smile about lately.

Baseball can change that.  

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.