CLEMSON — September showers bring May flowers.
That’s the hope for new Clemson baseball coach Monte Lee, whose Tigers were stuck inside for the opening day of fall practices Friday afternoon due to steady rain in the area.
The weather couldn’t dampen Lee’s sunny forecast for the 2016 college baseball season, on the condition the Tigers bring their best to the dullness of fundamental-based sessions in his first offseason.
“The fall is very, very crucial to us. It is the most important part of the season, in my opinion,” Lee said. “Guys are going to fight for jobs, along with trying to learn our way of doing things.”
Lee was the head coach at the College of Charleston, his alma mater, from 2009-15, compiling a 276-145 record and four NCAA tournament berths. He replaced longtime Clemson skipper Jack Leggett in June, becoming the Tigers’ third baseball coach in 59 years.
That he’s taking over a wayward program that doesn’t take .500 seasons too kindly isn’t affecting Lee’s philosophy.
“I always approach the fall the same, regardless of wherever I’ve been. My job is to get the absolute most out of each individual and this year’s team,” Lee said. “It’s about coaching these players and making sure when we get to the spring, they enjoy playing because they know what to expect.”
The veteran players who spent more time answering questions about their former coach’s job security than they’d care to remember are looking forward to
“Things were good with Coach Leggett, but there’s a new vibe with a new coaching staff,” said sophomore outfielder Reed Rohlman, the team’s batting champ in 2015. “Everybody’s really buying in to what they’re saying, and we’re just excited to start fall practice.”
Two-thirds the coaching staff might be different — Lee retained hitting coach Bradley LeCroy, but brought in former Duke pitching coach Andrew See — and the vibe might be as well, but the back of Clemson’s ball caps remain the same. There’s still the site of the College World Series inscripted within an orange Tiger Paw.
“Every year’s a clean slate, so the goal is still to get to Omaha,” junior shortstop Eli White said. “We’ve got to be more consistent on a daily basis in every aspect of the game.”
Rohlman, White, junior catcher Chris Okey and infielders Chase Pinder, Weston Wilson and Andrew Cox are back for an experience-laden lineup.
However, the Tigers’ entire weekend rotation (Matthew Crownover, Zack Erwin and Brody Koerner) left early for the MLB Entry Draft. That trio, in addition to graduated senior Jake Long, started 51 of the Tigers’ 61 games last fall.
“Not a lot of innings back, so my job is to make them feel comfortable,” said Okey, entering his second full year behind the plate. “Coach See’s doing a great job with the pitching philosophy, which is above my head.”
Clate Schmidt is the team’s most experienced returning starter, with six last year, but he’s just getting back from beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I have no idea who will be our No. 1 starter. So all three of those spots are open, and all the bullpen roles are open,” Lee said. “We’re looking for guys who are going to pound the strike zone when pressure and adversity hits.”
The players believe they’re capable of reaching Omaha in the first year of a new era. All Lee’s concerned with in September is rebuilding the program one offseason day at a time.
“Our expectations are in how we play, how we practice, how we pitch, how we defend,” Lee said. “I think if they buy into that, the wins and losses take care of themselves.”