COLUMBIA — When South Carolina announced that Wil Crowe would undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a torn elbow ligament, the initial prognosis was that the Gamecocks’ staff ace would miss all of the 2016 season as well as the remainder of the 2015 campaign. But there now appears a slight chance Crowe could return to the mound for USC sometime next year.
At least, that’s the decision Crowe, his family and South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook would have to make assuming the rising junior is cleared by doctors 10 to 12 months after his surgery, which took place April 28.
“Do we keep rehabbing and take it slow and see where he goes in the draft and redshirt next year, and look to be the 2017 opening day starter? Or do we pitch him in the last two and half months of the season depending on if he’s ready? Nowhere near close to making that call,” Holbrook said Thursday, when he reviewed USC’s season.
“In my mind, I think that Wil will recover very quickly. But at the same point and time, I’m not doing anything to jeopardize his future. If that means we need to redshirt Wil next year, that’s what we’ll do.”
Crowe was found to have a torn ulterior collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, and the surgery he underwent — named for the former Dodgers pitcher on which it was first performed — involved replacing the ligament with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. The recovery process is a long one, often taking 12 months or more. Crowe will remain on campus for much the summer for rehabilitation.
“He’s been here every single day,” Holbrook said. “That’s an injury and a rehab that you can’t rush. A lot of times kids come back from that injury and don’t get back to 100 percent until well after a year. And we have to keep that in perspective, because Wil’s future is important. He has a chance to be a first-round, second-round draft pick, and we can’t rush him back. If that means he’s out all next year, then so be it.”
With or without its top starting pitcher, USC will try to bounce back from a 32-25 season which saw the Gamecocks suffer their first losing SEC mark since 1997, and miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. It wasn’t lost on Holbrook that he wrapped up USC’s season a day when 64 other teams were practicing for NCAA Regionals that open Friday. The Gamecocks had hosted a regional in each of the past five years.
“It’s been a difficult time for me, as difficult as any time in my coaching career from a professional standpoint,” he said. “... We’re going to work tirelessly to ensure that when I’m sitting up here next year at this time, we’re getting ready to play a big NCAA Tournament game and not wrapping up our season. That’s going to be our focus and our determination as we move forward.”
USC’s roster next season could look very different. Infielder Jordan Gore and catcher Logan Koch have already left the program, and Holbrook said he anticipates a few other players might transfer as well. And in addition to losing seniors like first baseman Kyle Martin and outfielder Elliott Caldwell, juniors such as pitcher Jack Wynkoop and second baseman Max Schrock will face a decision to stay or go depending on when they’re selected in the June 8 Major League Baseball draft.
“The draft is going to affect our roster in a big-time way next year,” Holbrook said. “Max Schrock and Jack Wynkoop are two who are going to have professional opportunities. As I sit here right now, I don’t know if we’ll get either one of them back.”
As for what happened this season, Holbrook said he’s “analyzed it front and back.” USC didn’t win many of the close games the Gamecocks made a habit of taking in more successful seasons. Holbrook says he probably moved too many of his more versatile players around early in the year, which prevented them from getting comfortable and perhaps negatively impacted their performance.
And then there were the struggles at the plate. USC finished last in the SEC with a .257 team batting average, and many hitters who had been reliable throughout much of their careers just couldn’t find any consistency. Holbrook said it wasn’t for lack of effort — they spent “hours and hours” in the hitting cages, he added — but wonders if the dearth of success simply took a mental toll.
“It wasn’t because of work, it wasn’t because of character, it wasn’t because they didn’t try their tails off,” he said. “Sometimes, this game can get you from time to time from a psychological standpoint, and I think it snowballed on several guys.”
Holbrook, an assistant to Ray Tanner on USC’s 2010 and 2011 national championship teams, was the first Gamecocks head coach to reach the NCAA Regionals in each of his first two seasons. He said he doesn’t believe the program needs a major renovation after one down year.
“I’ve seen what it takes to get to the top. I’ve been a part of teams that have gotten to the top. And I’m as confident as I possibly can be that I know what it takes to get there,” he said. “Are there some tweaks I might make because of what occurred this year? Yeah, there might be a tweak here or there. But I’m not going to overhaul who I am because we had a tough stretch this year. Because I’ve been a lot more successful than I’ve been unsuccessful.”
Those tweaks may be evident in fall workouts.
“We might welcome the sun up a few times. More than a couple, all fall. We might be best friends with the sunrise,” Holbrook said. “There will be changes like that, because our players need to understand that what we just went through is not acceptable.”
Tanner, now USC’s athletic director, has voiced his support of Holbrook, who just completed his fourth season as head coach. Holbrook said his boss is among the few who can relate to what he’s going through.
“His understanding has given me some comfort,” he said. “That said, coach Tanner is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. Maybe the most competitive person I’ve ever met. And he doesn’t like the situation that we’re in any more than I don’t like it, because we want to win. But he does have a semblance of understanding, and that’s been somewhat therapeutic for me. He tried to help me get my spirits up, and he’s the probably the only one that has a chance at doing that.”
Senior outfielder Connor Bright of Mount Pleasant missed the final two weeks of the season with a shoulder injury. But Holbrook wonders if it was the torn elbow tendon the Wando High School product suffered late last season that might have taken the biggest toll in 2015, when Bright saw his average plummet from .311 to .149.
“It was a very, very difficult injury, and it spooked him. It spooked me,” Holbrook said. “That game in which he was injured, there were some moments in the dugout when I was a scared coach, just because I was concerned for his health. He finished the year OK, got some big hits for us, recovered fine. I don’t know if I have the exact answer. I know he did battle injury. He’d take a swing here or there, and something would bother him related to that injury. That probably had something to do with his production, if not physically, then probably psychologically.”
It all added up to a difficult senior season for Bright, one of USC’s few remaining links to its most recent College World Series team. “He gave our program a lot over four years,” Holbrook said. “I hate it he had this kind of year his senior year. But Connor’s going to be very, very successful in whatever he chooses to do.”