COLUMBIA — Nobody ever promised him this was going to be easy.
Chad Holbrook knew the deal when he became South Carolina’s baseball coach before this season. He knew the lofty expectations because he helped create them.
In four seasons as Ray Tanner’s chief recruiter, Holbrook laid the foundation for USC’s national titles in 2010 and 2011, and national runner-up finish last year. But this, his 20th season as a baseball coach and first as the head man, would be something altogether different.
Before the season, he sat in his office, surrounded by memorabilia from the past three seasons’ conquests, and cautioned that national titles and College World Series trips simply don’t happen every year — not here, not anywhere. Still, he understood that for all the work that lay ahead of him in the regular season, the ultimate judgment on his debut year would not come until Memorial Day weekend, when the NCAA tournament began.
The Gamecocks went 39-16 (17-12 SEC) in the regular season, and closed strong after a 2-4 start in league play. This nearly mirrored the 2012 regular season, when USC went 39-15 and 18-11, following a 1-5 start to its conference schedule.
Tanner’s final season and Holbrook’s first did contrast in one important way. In 2012, USC remained mostly healthy. This season, its first baseman (and best hitter), top returning starting pitcher, All-American closer and entire outfield all missed time with injuries — similar to what the Gamecocks endured in 2011.
They are finally at full health now as they prepare for their SEC tournament opener Wednesday night in Hoover, Ala., against the winner of tonight’s single-elimination game between Missouri and Mississippi State.
“I hope that’ll bode well for the rest of the postseason,” Holbrook said. “We’ve had to maintain and manage some adversity that’s kind of struck our team. We consider ourselves very, very fortunate that we were able to manage some of the things that were thrown our way. I’m proud of our players, but at the same point in time, the most important part of our season is in front of us. Just because we’re getting healthy and all our guys are back, that doesn’t guarantee us success.”
Because USC got one of the top four seeds in the conference tournament (No. 4), it escaped the single-elimination first round that is part of the tournament’s new 14-team format. So USC must lose twice before going home. Holbrook expects to throw Nolan Belcher on Wednesday and Jordan Montgomery, who has long since moved past a sore elbow, on Thursday — each with one fewer day of rest than normal.
While Holbrook would love to win USC’s second SEC tournament title, and first since 2004, the event probably won’t significantly impact the Gamecocks’ NCAA tournament situation.
Though they went 1-2 last weekend at Mississippi State, they benefited from Arkansas going 1-2 at Auburn. So unless USC goes 0-2 in Hoover and Arkansas makes a deep run, the Gamecocks are essentially locked in to host an NCAA regional, beginning next Friday. USC is currently not projected to get a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament, which would assure them of also hosting a super regional.
To get a national seed, they would probably need to win the SEC tournament (five victories in five days) and have Oregon and Louisville significantly stumble, because those are the primary contenders for the eighth national seed, said Perfect Game’s Kendall Rogers. The other seven national seeds are almost certainly set, with Florida State solidifying its position in that group by going 2-1 against Clemson last weekend, said Rogers.
Holbrook wants to play as many NCAA tournament home games as possible. USC is 55-8 all-time in tournament home games, with 24 straight victories since 2002, and 35-31 in road games.
Because USC has likely done enough to host a regional, and because a national seed is still a distant hope, Holbrook does not head to Hoover as a desperate coach. He can now anticipate a home regional and work toward Belcher being as fresh as possible in the regional opener.
To that end, Holbrook is proceeding cautiously with starting Belcher on shorter rest. If Belcher felt sore, Holbrook said he would not start him on Wednesday. Much more consequential goals loom ahead, and they are no longer far off.
“We want to throw Nolan on Wednesday,” Holbrook said. “But we’re not going to push the envelope in regard to his health for the next week.”