COLUMBIA — South Carolina is 28-5 overall, in first place by two games in the SEC, and from a record perspective off to its best baseball start in over a decade. The support at Founders Park has reflected that, with the Gamecocks averaging over 7,000 tickets sold per game.
But has the USC fan base, which as a result of the 2010 and 2011 national championships holds its baseball program to stratospherically high standards, bought into this club, or is it still hestiant given the shortcomings of last season? The topic came up Sunday, after the Gamecocks defeated Tennessee 4-3 to complete yet another three-game sweep of a conference opponent, before a home crowd that for the most part seemed a tad — subdued.
Even head coach Chad Holbrook noticed as much, raising the subject without being prompted when he spoke with reporters afterward. “Was kind of a quiet park today,” he said. “We’re sitting up here 28-5. I want our fans to participate a little more and make it a little harder on our opponents. They got going in the eighth ... and the ninth when our backs were against the wall.”
The crowd stirred to life in the eighth when leading hitter Alex Destino, out over a week with a sprained shoulder, stepped up to pinch hit. From there on, the tone in the park was noticeably different. Not coincidentally, that’s when the Gamecocks rallied to take the lead on a Destino single, and then close it out after reliever Josh Reagan weathered a bases-loaded, no-outs tightrope-walk in the top of the ninth.
Before that? Despite being a close game throughout, let’s just say you could hear the crowing of Sir Big Spur loud and clear. Was it because it was Masters Sunday? A hangover from the spring football game? Were people sleepy from the after-church buffet? Regardless, when the rooster is the making the most noise, South Carolina is not exactly enjoying the most ideal of home-field advantages.
“It’s not as loud as I want it it be. It’s not the atmosphere I want in this stadium yet,” Holbrook said, when asked a follow-up question.
“I’m not being critical. This program and our fan base, we’re awfully blessed. Recruits want to come here because of the atmosphere our fans create. We can make it awfully hard on an opponent. I don’t know if we’re making it as hard as we can from an atmosphere standpoint, in terms of how loud it’s been, until the game’s on the line.
“But that’s just me being picky. Our fans are incredible. Seven thousand people every game, our season ticket holders are incredible. But it’s much easier for us to win when you can’t hear yourself think. And I felt it was a little quiet today. Just my opinion.”
There’s no question that last season, when the Gamecocks missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999, left a bruise. Some folks still give Holbrook a hard time for that, even though he did an effective job of revamping the roster and quickly addressing South Carolina’s greatest areas of need. As the head coach will readily attest, baseball seasons in Columbia are judged by the postseason.
Even so, the Gamecocks are having a pretty remarkable year. They won their 28th game on April 10, something that didn’t happen last season until May 5. USC hasn’t garnered 28 wins this early in a season since 2005. Even in the two national championship seasons, the 28-win mark wasn’t reached until April 17.
And to be fair, the fan support is there; the attendance numbers reflect it. In the room, it didn’t seem Holbrook wasn’t “calling out” fans, as some have interpreted. There was nothing in his tone to suggest that. But clearly, he wants the people in the grandstands to be louder. Late in the season, top-10 conference foes Florida and Texas A&M come to Founders Park for three-game sets that could decide the SEC championship. If USC keeps this going, think the volume level will be pumped up a bit by then?