South Carolina approaching end of an era with NCAA streak on the brink

South Carolina’s Jack Wynkoop throws a pitch against Missouri during the second inning of a baseball game at the Southeastern Conference college baseball tournament at the Hoover Met, Tuesday, May 19, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

COLUMBIA — In the NCAA baseball record book, South Carolina pops up again and again, like a garnet and black-colored Jack-in-the-box. USC is tied with Texas for most super regional victories, stands second behind Florida State for most super regional games, ranks high on the list of winning percentage in regional and super regional play combined. All of it burnished over a 15-year streak of tournament appearances which stands as an accomplishment in its own right.

And that streak — which came to define a program that won two national titles, made six College World Series trips and emerged as a genuine power over its duration — is nearly at an end. When the NCAA Tournament field is unveiled at noon Monday on ESPNU, the Gamecocks are not expected to be among the 64 teams chosen. Barring a shocker of an at-large berth, it will mark the first time USC has missed the tournament since 1999.

“Yeah, I’m disappointed. I’m the head coach, and I’m responsible for that,” said coach Chad Holbrook. “But this program has been good for a long, long time. I know I’m not going to let, and these players aren’t going to let, one difficult year define them, define me or define us as a program. That’s going to be our attitude as we move forward.”

A 5-1 loss to Missouri in the opening round of the SEC Tournament was likely the last gasp for a Gamecocks team that was ranked No. 13 in the preseason, won 10 straight and was once 17-3 before injuries, a string of losses to smaller in-state programs and an anemic offense finally combined to take their toll. While USC finished with 13 SEC regular season victories — and four league teams in the past decade have earned NCAA berths with that same amount — the Gamecocks’ RPI of 61 is almost certainly too low to merit consideration.

And the end result will likely be a missed postseason for the first time since former head coach Ray Tanner’s third year at the helm.

“It’s not the way we want to go out,” said USC junior pitcher Jack Wynkoop, who is draft-eligible after this season. “There’s a long tradition here of going to the postseason. I’m just happy to be part of such a great program, and I feel that’s what we’ll be next year.”

It’s been a heck of a run. The Gamecocks’ streak of consecutive NCAA appearances began in 2000, with USC’s first home regional since 1985. It grew to become the longest active streak of consecutive postseason berths in the SEC, and by itself accounts for half of all NCAA berths in South Carolina history.

USC’s is the fifth-longest active streak nationally, behind Miami’s 42 — yes, the Hurricanes have made the tournament every season since 1973 — Florida State’s 37, Cal State-Fullerton’s 23 and Rice’s 20. Those others are all expected to continue this season, as are the streaks of 13 straight by Arkansas and North Carolina, who will supplant the Gamecocks for fifth on the list.

All-time, USC’s streak is tied for ninth-longest with the 15-year tournament runs of Northern Colorado (1952-66) and Oral Roberts (1998-2012). Miami still tops the list, while Clemson’s 21-year run between 1987 and 2007 is the fourth-longest, and LSU’s 17-year streak between 1989 and 2005 is the longest in the SEC.

Selection Monday is usually when South Carolina prepares to be named as an NCAA Regional host, as it’s been for each of the past five seasons. But this time around, the Gamecocks are bracing for the reality of being left out of the tournament field altogether. When that happens, it will be the end of an era at USC, the finale to a run of conecutive postseason berths exceeded by just three other programs — women’s tennis, women’s track, and women’s golf — in South Carolina history.

And then, it will be time to try and begin a new one. “We’ve got to pick ourselves up off the mat and not let his season define us, and get back to being who we are,” Holbrook said. “And I have no doubt in my mind that’s what we’ll do.”