Fred Jordan stood beside the pressbox at Riley Park one day this week, staring impassively through his sunglasses as the Southern Conference baseball tournament went on without him.
It wasn't easy for The Citadel's proud baseball coach, whose "Four Days in May" mantra has carried the Bulldogs to seven SoCon tournament titles and the same number of NCAA regional appearances in his 20 years as head coach.
Jordan's usual perch at the SoCon tournament is on the top step of the dugout, and at or near the top of the league.
But the Bulldogs failed to qualify for the tournament this year for the first time since 1987, as Jordan's 20th season turned into one of the worst in The Citadel's history.
The Bulldogs went 20-36 overall and 8-22 in the SoCon, finishing last in the league for the first time and ending the season with a 12-game losing streak, their longest since 1967.
"If you stay in this game long enough, you get to enjoy all aspects of it," Jordan said with a laugh. "And now, I've enjoyed everything possible in this league."
The No. 1 question, of course, is what went wrong?
Jordan points directly at the defense, which finished last in the SoCon in fielding percentage (.953) and first in errors (98). After losing second baseman Bryan Altman and shortstop Kyle Jordan from last year's SoCon championship team, Jordan never found the right balance between offense and defense in the middle infield.
He tried three different players at shortstop and three at second base, including outfielders Matt Simonelli and Nick Orvin.
The pitching staff, in addition to losing stalwarts Asher Wojciechowski and Raymond Copenhaver, also took unexpected hits. Sophomore Mike Clevinger, now regarded as a possible high draft pick or major college prospect, transferred to a junior college just before the season. Closer Drew Mahaffey suffered a season-ending knee injury in early April, further taxing a young bullpen.
"Defensively, we did not perform very well," Jordan said. "And some of our liabilities in the field increased our pitching deficiencies. We gave up too many outs is the bottom line."
Senior Matt Talley, the preseason SoCon pitcher of the year, is exhibit A. Talley went 3-7 despite a 3.95 ERA. He was tagged for 20 unearned runs, the highest total in the SoCon, as The Citadel committed 20 errors in Talley's 10 decisions.
On offense, the Bulldogs hit .282 (sixth in the SoCon) but scored only 303 runs, well down from 425 last year.
"Offensively, we usually specialize in the timely hit, and we didn't come up with that, especially down the stretch," Jordan said.
All of that combined to cost the Bulldogs in close games. They went 4-10 in one-run games and 7-17 in games decided by two runs or less. In one early season stretch, the Bulldogs had 10 straight one or two-run games, and lost nine of them.
"Our ballclub played with so much pressure on them, especially the last month," Jordan said. "I think that contributed a lot to our performance, and I wasn't able to find the button to relieve that pressure. Hopefully, that's one thing I learned from this season."
Hope lies in the performance of young players like Joe Jackson and Drew DeKerlegand, who made the SoCon's all-freshman team, and the experience gained by young pitchers such as Austin Pritcher, Justin Russell, Bryce Hines and Logan Cribb, conqueror of top-ranked South Carolina.
"It's been very difficult," Jordan said. "But I will say this: I, and this program, will be better because of it."