No regrets

South Carolina first baseman Nick Ebert said the academic ordeal that delayed the start of his senior season was not the reason for a sluggish start at the plate. Ebert is batting .290 with four home runs and 22 RBIs.

Prolonged slumps have derailed a whole lot of college baseball careers over the years. But the one that Nick Ebert encountered to begin this season had no chance -- none -- of getting to South Carolina's senior first baseman.

After all, a drought at the plate was nothing compared to what he'd already encountered off the field in a little more than a year's time.

"I looked at it like, 'Oh, I've been through worse than a bad start to the season,' " Ebert said this week. "I thought, 'I've been through a lot worse. This is nothing.' "

In February 2009, a fire destroyed his apartment and most of the belongings he had brought with him from Florida.

"That's something I'd never want anyone to have to go through," he said.

The junior college product, who had never even played first base until last season, rebounded to improbably lead the Gamecocks in home runs and RBIs in his first year in the SEC.

There were no flames, but the 2010 crisis was just as emotionally consuming: Ebert was sidelined, even into the season, as he awaited an academic appeal that held his baseball fate in the balance.

Everyone associated with the team held their breath as they waited for the final decision.

"I felt for him. I knew he was trying to get everything straight and fighting," USC coach Ray Tanner said this week. "It affected me. There's no question about it.

"It wasn't one of those things where you say we have him or we don't and we move on. There was so much invested, emotionally."

The thought that paralyzed Ebert was that the Gamecocks, who had a lot of preseason promise, wouldn't be the same without him in the lineup. He didn't mean that arrogantly, not at all, but he felt like he was an important piece of the team's puzzle.

"I thought I was letting my teammates down," Ebert said. "That was the worst I'd felt. For our team to be as good as we could be, I felt like I needed to be out there."

As the wait turned into weeks and then a couple of months, Tanner kept coming back to the realization that Ebert, a 32nd-round pick by the New York Yankees in 2009, turned down pro ball to come back to USC.

"He could've gone on his merry way to pro ball, but he made a decision to come back," Tanner said. "That speaks volumes for me."

Did Ebert ever once regret the decision to stay in school -- especially once schoolwork then almost ended his college career?

"When I made that decision, I told myself I wasn't going to regret it no matter what," Ebert said. "I still won't. College ball is fun, man. That's why I came back."

A week into the season, just before the important East Carolina series, the Gamecocks got their first baseman back.

Well, sort of. He was in the lineup, but he struggled.

Ebert said he wouldn't use the academic ordeal as an excuse, but he admits it knocked him out of rhythm. As much as he tried to act free, it always had his mind captive.

"I don't want to say it hurt me on the field, but it was always in the back of my mind," he said. "That started the season off on the wrong foot right there."

As his batting average dropped, so did his playing time. Tanner sensed that Jeff Jones was the hot hand, even if Ebert hit .321 with 23 home runs and 72 RBIs last season.

Ebert maintained an even-keel appearance on the outside, but Tanner said he sensed Ebert was boiling on the inside.

The veteran coach noticed something else around that time: Ebert's truck.

It was in the stadium parking lot long after games. Sometimes it was there by the time Tanner arrived at his office.

Ebert was either in the weight room or batting cage, determined to get back to his 2009 form.

He might have the right mentality to weather off-the-field adversity, but it didn't mean Ebert was going to sit back and wait for success to again find him. He was going to work his way out of the pit and back onto the field.

"If he ever feels like he's not helping the team or program enough, that's when he starts rolling his sleeves up," Tanner said. "He thinks this way: If you have a great approach to things, you're bound to have some success.

"He doesn't accept negative situations; he fights through it."

Slowly, surely, you've started to see Ebert look more like Ebert.

The real turning point was a first-pitch home run in an important series-clinching victory against Mississippi State on April 4. He says that was his season's kickstart.

Ebert hit his fourth home run of the season Sunday as the Gamecocks closed out a sweep of Georgia. His average (.290) is creeping closer and closer to .300.

"I feel a lot better. I'm hitting the ball a lot better," he said. "Baseball's a tough sport to play. I believe if you work hard, everything will take care of itself.

"I feel like I'm well past all that. Hopefully I'll hit six, seven, eight more homers down the stretch here and end up having a great season."

No. 7 South Carolina, now 32-8 overall and 14-4 in the SEC, is off to one of its best starts in years.

Think about this: That's with Ebert slumping for the better part of the season. What happens if he gets going? What happens if Saturday starter Sam Dyson continues to pitch better? What happens if freshman slugger Christian Walker starts hitting?

"That's scary," Ebert said. "It's scary to think about."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).