Cougars going with Clarke in opener

CofC's Taylor Clarke is 12-1 with a 1.46 ERA and 123 strikeouts this season.

College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee doesn’t mind occasionally rolling the dice with his pitching rotation.

Heading into this week’s Colonial Athletic Association baseball tournament at Patriots Point, Lee had toyed with the idea of starting someone besides staff ace Taylor Clarke on Thursday afternoon in the Cougars’ opening game.

But in the end, Lee decided to keep his rotation intact and go with Clarke in the Cougars’ first tournament game on Thursday.

Six teams will compete for the conference title using a format that provides the top two seeds with first-round byes. Six different schools have won the CAA title over the past six years.

The double-elimination tournament gets underway Wednesday as No. 4 seed Elon (24-27, 13-11 CAA) faces No. 5 Delaware (23-22, 11-13) at Patriots Point, followed by third-seeded Northeastern (24-28, 14-10) against sixth-seeded William & Mary (22-28, 10-14) at 3:30 p.m. The losers of the first two games will meet in an elimination game at 7 p.m.

The Cougars will face the winner of the Elon-Delaware game at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Clarke has been the Cougars’ ace all season, going 12-1 with a 1.46 ERA and establishing a school record with 126 strikeouts.

“This is something the coaching staff and I have gone back and forth on all week,” Lee said. “We’re going to go with Taylor. I think what it came down to was that if you want to win the conference tournament, we’d better win that first game. We just didn’t want to risk that by not putting Taylor out there. We didn’t want to mess around with a ‘what if’ scenario and then lose that first game.

“We decided to go with our best guy in Game 1 and let’s do everything we can to win that game.”

The Cougars (41-11, 21-3) have all but assured themselves on an at-large bid in next week’s NCAA Tournament. However, with an RPI ranking of No. 17 nationally, the Cougars have an excellent chance to host an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history with a strong showing in the CAA Tournament.

“The guys knows there’s a lot at stake,” Lee said. “They know that not only are we playing for a conference championship, but they are implications of whether or not we can host a regional based on what we do this week. The hard work during the regular season has been done, now it’s a matter of can we get that final item on our resume.”

While playing at home can have its distractions, Lee is hopeful the Cougars will focus on the task at hand.

“Hopefully, we’ll play loose and pressure free,” Lee said. “Sure there’s going to be a little bit of pressure on them playing at home, but when you’ve got a good team and a good program you’re supposed to be able to play under a little bit of pressure. That’s just part of it. If you want to be a top-15 team, you’ve got to thrive in pressure situations.”