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June 20, 2013
Ray Tanner always said that Chad Holbrook was a head coach who had never been a head coach. It's why he was never surprised when Holbrook's name annually came up on the coaching carousel. It's also why he knew there would be no dropoff when he officially handed the reins of South Carolina baseball to Holbrook - Tanner recently said that Holbrook did an outstanding job with this year's team, despite there not being much left in the cupboard from a stellar three-year run of College World Series appearances.
Holbrook's first squad won 43 games, finished fourth in the SEC and advanced to a position only a few teams get to - one win from Omaha. The Gamecocks were the better team in the NCAA Super Regional, too, but couldn't get out of their own way. It added up to a good, but not great year, which in the overall view, was exactly what a good, but not great, team should have accomplished.
So as he sat in his office, looking over the sun-splashed diamond where youth campers now crowded, Holbrook could reflect on his first year. He spoke of the pain and hurt of not being in Omaha for his seventh time in eight years, a streak that would have had him paying rent to the city fathers. He also spoke of the day-to-day process of fully guiding a ballclub, and the day-to-day headaches and pleasures that cycled through his fingers.
"I'm proud of what the team accomplished when a lot of bad things happened to us," Holbrook said. "I'm glad that we were able to host a regional when there for a while, it looked like we were going to have to fight our way to get into one. I'm glad we responded to adversity.
"Coming back from that Florida trip (where the Gamecocks were swept), I was wondering if we were going to be able to survive. We not only survived, we went on a really good run. Winning a regional championship is important. But I'm still very disappointed with the way the season ended. That's going to stick with me until we start up next year."
USC showed strong resiliency to answer every time it was challenged, such as after sweeps by Arkansas and Florida. The Gamecocks hung on to a host spot for the NCAA Regionals despite going 0-2 in the SEC tournament (an event where Tanner also had his problems) and then did what they do in the postseason at home - swept right through it.
USC thought it had shed itself of a Game 1 error-fest when Jordan Montgomery blanked North Carolina in Game 2 of the NCAA Chapel Hill Super Regional, but too many yips and too many zeroes in the hit column cost it a CWS berth in Game 3. Holbrook had gambled in the postseason of placing Kyle Martin at first base over LB Dantzler, and it paid off as Martin responded with five solid games, making up for any wasted at-bats with a quick glove.
That was one thing that stood out to Holbrook about his first year. Being the guy in charge of making moves, he had to realize that making moves might help the team, but it would hurt a player who was being replaced. As the guy who recruited the majority of the current team, Holbrook knew all of the players and hated to do it - but he couldn't sacrifice loyalty to one if playing another would mean the difference between winning and losing.
"The thing that sticks out, you can't please everybody," he said. "We had a number of players that probably deserved to play that maybe didn't get the opportunities. You can't give everybody equal opportunity, you just can't do it. That was hard for me to manage a little bit, because there's some kids that didn't get to play that in the back of my mind, maybe deserved a crack. We don't get free substitution rules, and this isn't Little League, where everybody has to play equally."
Many moves were made this year due to necessity, as the Gamecocks barely had the lineup they had planned on stay healthy. Others - like moving Martin over Dantzler at first when Dantzler struggled defensively, even though it meant moving .307 hitter Brison Celek out of the designated hitter role - were done to have the team playing its best at the biggest time.
Looking ahead to 2014, Holbrook only loses a couple of key pieces in the everyday lineup, with Dantzler and Chase Vergason having exhausted their eligibility. The pitching staff takes a large hit, with Nolan Belcher, middle-relief specialist Adam Westmoreland and closer Tyler Webb all leaving, but at least he has two solid blocks in Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop.
Yet, it will be a different-looking team. While only George Iskenderian and Drake Thomason are definitely not coming back among the returnees (Brison Celek, who accepted his draft position only to run into a snafu and change his mind, appears to be headed back to school), there may be a few others who depart. The leaders of the team will be players who played in Omaha in 2012, but none who played a significant part in winning the big prize.
It's all part of the process. Nobody wins forever. Holbrook knew that the run had to stop someday, but he did know that he didn't want it to stop right away. He also knows that if it gets re-started in 2014, the dynasty also gets re-started.
"I'm certainly a big boy enough to understand that South Carolina is about getting to the College World Series," Holbrook said. "As hard as that is, it's still our expectation. It's a disappointment. Is it a season of disappointment? No. But not getting to Omaha hurts. And it should."
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