Under new coach Monte Lee, Clemson ready to prove doubters wrong

Clemson catcher Chris Okey, left, and outfielder Reed Rohlman, right, will be in the heart of the Tigers' experienced hitting order to start the 2016 season. (File/AP Photo)

CLEMSON — He goes to the grocery store, and the clerk or a fellow shopper demands intel on the pitching staff’s development.

He reads the local newspaper, and doesn’t need to flip a page to find coverage of himself and his own baseball team and how they might shore up the left side of the infield.

If he dared venture onto message boards, Monte Lee would find an army of problem-solvers happy to do his job for him.

“They know more about this team than I do, being a first-year guy,” Lee said, completely serious and taking no umbrage.

Lee tapped his cleats three times last June, and suddenly, he wasn’t in Charleston anymore. He knew what he signed up for, taking over a wayward Clemson baseball program devoid of an NCAA Regional title for five straight years — the program’s longest such drought since the 1980s.

Not that this matters on paper more than one weekend a year, but it’s highly significant to the fans all year long: Lee was also hired to do something about Clemson’s 24 losses in its past 34 matchups with South Carolina dating to 2006, when Lee was in the thick of a six-year stint as a Gamecocks assistant.

“I understand the expectations. I’m from South Carolina too, and I’ve coached (in the state) my whole life,” Lee said. “We don’t have the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Clemson and South Carolina are the big leagues for people in South Carolina.”

Does Lee, who inherited a decent array of experienced bats but a painfully young pitching staff, figure fans will be patient through growing pains?

“Patience? People expect a high level of baseball. That’s just the bottom line,” Lee said. “I’m just making sure when we hit the field Friday that we’re going to be playing at a high level. My job is to get the most out of this year’s team, because every year’s a different team.”

Clemson (32-29, 16-13 ACC a year ago) let go of longtime head coach Jack Leggett for his postseason failings. But Leggett rarely oversaw an abject disaster, responsible for just one sub-.500 ACC record in 22 years (2008) and never finishing worse than fourth in the conference or division standings.

In Lee’s first year, Clemson was picked by the coaches to finish fifth in the seven-team Atlantic division.

“We’re motivated by it. We realize we’re Clemson University and they don’t have enough respect to put us higher in the polls,” All-American catcher Chris Okey said. “You know what? Maybe that’s what we need, is to be doubted a little bit so we can make it up and be where we need to be in the end. We have no doubt in our minds that we’re going to be one of the top teams in the nation.”

An old staple in the Leggett era remained this season. Players continue to wear a Tiger Paw patch on the back of their ballcaps with the word “Omaha” embroidered in the middle, declaring the College World Series their ultimate goal.

“The past two classes haven’t been able to go to Omaha. We’re not accepting that. We’re not accepting failure this year,” senior pitcher Clate Schmidt said. “We’ve worked as hard as we’ve ever worked, whether it be conditioning, the weight room, hitting, pitching, fielding. We’re not settling for anything less than Omaha.”

Schmidt’s mentorship of younger hurlers Charlie Barnes, Jake Higginbotham, Brooks Crawford and Alex Eubanks will be imperative to keeping Clemson competitive in a tough league during what could be considered a rebuilding season.

“So many people that do this for a living understand it takes time to build a program and a culture,” Lee said. “But I will say this — these kids that I’ve inherited for my first team here at Clemson, they’re really, really coachable. Extremely good character kids. As much as I can get out of them in Year 1, I think we will because they’ve bought in.”

2015 RECORD: 32-29 (16-13 ACC)

COACH: Monte Lee, 1st season at Clemson (276-145 in 7 seasons at College of Charleston)

TOP PLAYERS: C Chris Okey (.315, 12 HR, 57 RBI); 1B Reed Rohlman (.356, 58 RBI); RHP Clate Schmidt (2-3, 4.67 ERA)

TOP NEWCOMERS: OF Seth Beer (6-2, 195), Suwanee, Ga.; LHP Jake Higginbotham (5-10, 170), Hoschton, Ga.

OUTLOOK: Because Lee presents a power-bats background, he retained popular hitting coach Bradley LeCroy and the Tigers return five of their top seven run producers (plus the addition of Beer’s serious pop), Clemson should at least be fun to watch with the sticks. However, the Tigers are projected for its worst season in decades per a preseason ACC coaches poll for a reason, and that reason is serious questions on the mound. How quickly new pitching coach Andrew See turns Schmidt from serviceable to a weekend ace, and when he can get Higginbotham and Charlie Barnes ready to deal with ACC lineups, will tell the tale of Lee’s maiden voyage in the upstate.

FEBRUARY

19 – Maine, 4 p.m.; 20 – Maine, 2 p.m.; 21 – Maine, 1 p.m.; 26 – James Madison, 4 p.m.; 27 – James Madison, 2 p.m.; 28 – James Madison, 1 p.m.

MARCH

1 – Wofford, 4 p.m.; 4 – at South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 5 – vs. South Carolina (Fluor Field, Greenville), 2:30 p.m.; 6 – South Carolina, 2 p.m.; 9 – Winthrop, 4 p.m.; 11 – at Wake Forest, 6 p.m.; 12 – at Wake Forest, 4 p.m.; 13 – at Wake Forest, 1 p.m.; 15 – at The Citadel, 7 p.m.; 16 – at The Citadel, 6 p.m.; 18 – Boston College, 6:30 p.m.; 19 – Boston College, 4 p.m.; 20 – Boston College, 1 p.m.; 22 – Presbyterian College, 6:30 p.m.; 25 – at Miami, 7 p.m.; 26 – at Miami, 7 p.m.; 27 – at Miami, 1 p.m.; 29 – vs. Furman (Fluor Field, Greenville), 7 p.m.; 30 – at Western Carolina, 6 p.m.

APRIL

1 – Pittsburgh, 6:30 p.m.; 2 – Pittsburgh, 4 p.m.; 3 – Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.; 5 – at Georgia, 7 p.m.; 8 – at Duke, 6 p.m.; 9 – at Duke, 1 p.m.; 10 – at Duke, 1 p.m.; 12 – Western Carolina, 6:30 p.m.; 15 – at Louisville, 6 p.m.; 16 – at Louisville, 1 p.m.; 17 – at Louisville, 1 p.m.; 19 – Georgia, 6:30 p.m.; 22 – Georgia Tech, 6:30 p.m.; 23 – Georgia Tech, 6:30 p.m.; 24 – Georgia Tech, 1 p.m.; 30 – Florida State, 6:30 p.m.

MAY

1 – Florida State, 4 p.m.; 2 – Florida State, 7 p.m.; 4 – Furman, 6:30 p.m.; 6 – N.C. State, 6:30 p.m.; 7 – N.C. State, 4 p.m.; 8 – N.C. State, 1 p.m.; 10 – College of Charleston, 6:30 p.m.; 11 – College of Charleston, 4 p.m.; 13 – at Georgia Southern, 7 p.m.; 14 – at Georgia Southern, 7 p.m.; 15 – at Georgia Southern, 1 p.m.; 17 – Charleston Southern, 6:30 p.m.; 19 – at Notre Dame, 6:05 p.m.; 20 – at Notre Dame, 6:05 p.m.; 21 – at Notre Dame, 1:05 p.m.; May 24-29 – ACC Tournament, Durham, N.C.