It was seven months ago, but it seems like yesterday that USC fell 5-4 to North Carolina in the Chapel Hill Super Regional, just missing out on a chance to play for an unprecedented fourth national title appearance in a row.
For second-year Chad Holbrook, the ensuing time has been valuable both as a learning experience and as motivation for a 2013-14 team that is as loaded as anyone in the nation.
"Our players know what our expectations are and I think they embrace our expectations," said Holbrook at his season-opening press conference Friday afternoon at Carolina Stadium. "It was a disappointing end (to last season). We were one run, one out, one play from making it back to the College World Series for the fourth year in a row. But it didn't happen.
"I hope there's a bitter taste in their mouths."
Holbrook said unlike some, he doesn't take an Omaha-or-bust approach to any season.
"I'm one of those guys who feels like as a coach, if I'm up here talking about Omaha every day, that when it comes time to make that pitch and get that last out that they're going to get tight or they're going to think the whole world is on their shoulders," Holbrook said. "We don't talk about it. We talk about being the best we can today, playing the best we can today, improve the best we can today and work as hard as we can today and hopefully come June it'll be good enough."
"One of coach (Ray) Tanner's best teams here went 56-10 and didn't make it to the College World Series. It's not life or death. That being said, the kids want to compete for a national championship. They've worked extremely hard to do so, but I don't want the pressure of thinking it's a successful or unsuccessful season being based on that one goal. Is it our goal? Yes. But I don't think that'll determine whether or not we had a tremendous year."
With a roster that returns All-American candidate Grayson Greiner at catcher, power-hitters Joey Pankake at third and Kyle Martin at first and defensive wizards Max Schrock at second and Tanner English in center field and a pitching staff led by proven standouts Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop, Holbrook is ready to roll his team out and take his chances.
"It's an exciting time for our coaches and our players," Holbrook said. "They've worked extremely hard since August to get ready for Opening Day, and this is the first time as a group we've gotten together since the fall to begin our quest to prepare for Opening Day and to have a successful season here.
"That being said, we have some huge challenges in front of us. I feel like we have some good players, some experienced players, guys who have played in the College World Series and played for a national championship and they're excited about as a group getting back out there. This program has been and will always be about our players.
"I'm lucky to share a dugout with them and be their coach. I have an incredible coaching staff. As coaches, sure, we're excited. But I can assure you our excitement doesn't exceed that of our players."
From a pitching perspective, Holbrook said Wil Crowe is the most intriguing player simply because of the options he gives the Gamecocks.
"We don't know how we're going to use Wil Crowe yet," Holbrook said. "Wil Crowe could be our closer, he could be a weekend starter. He could be a Saturday starter. Wil is very talented. He's got starter stuff and he's got a closer's mentality.
"He's a horse, he can shoulder a lot of innings and he wants to throw, he wants to get us into the seventh inning. That's his makeup, that's his mentality. But we still have to decide what's best for our team.
"Down the road, Wil Crowe is a starter. But, this year, with the situation we're in being unproven in the bullpen, who knows how we're going to use him.
Other options for that third starter spot include freshman Josh Reagan and Joel Seddon, Holbrook said.
"Josh Reagan was very productive this fall," Holbrook said. "He's a local kid that wasn't necessarily very highly recruited, but you could make a case he was our most consistent pitcher this fall. So his name is in there along with Joel Seddon. There's a number of guys. We'll see. We'll have somebody start on Sunday, Feb. 16, but I don't know. I know I feel good about Friday and Saturday right now.
"And as we get into the SEC, who knows? I love Jack Wynkoop throwing on Sunday. A lot of times that's a very important game. Am I saying he's our Sunday starter? No, but he always gave us a chance to win on Sunday, and I like to have a chance to win on Sunday because sometimes that determines who's going to win the series or not. So there's a lot of things going through our minds right now that coach (Jerry) Meyers and I will continue to discuss as we get closer to Opening Day."
For now, Holbrook has enough questions to keep his team and coaching staff on its toes, including who will replace closer Tyler Webb.
"We've got some questions to be answered," Holbrook said. "We're young in some spots but I think it's a very talented group. We have to find out who is going to get our last six outs, the last six outs of the game. You lose Adam Westmoreland, Tyler Webb and Nolan Belcher, a starter and two guys out of the bullpen, and that's a lot of outs we have to replace, that we have to fill.
"We're looking at replacing some of those innings with freshmen, and that's concerning for a coach. But, those freshmen are talented kids. We have a couple older guys who are fighting to be our closer here and there, I don't know who the close is going to be. Cody Mincey showed great promise. Mathew Vogel showed great promise. Wil Crowe has an exceptional arm. We've got capable people back there but they're unproven.
"Some are young, some haven't done it at this level, so we're going to have to figure it out on the fly a little. We didn't discover Matt Price until halfway through the season. So we're not going to be in a hurry to find out who that closer is going to be. It'll work itself out."
Injury notes: Holbrook said freshman right-handed pitcher Caanan Cropper had Tommy John surgery about a week ago and will redshirt this season.
"Canaan's got a bright future here, and we expect him to be healthy and 100-percent next year," Holbrook said. Croppre joins Forrest Koumas as the other pitcher who will sit out 2014 while rehabbing an injury.
Junior right-hander Evan Beal is nursing an injured back and will not pitch this weekend but will be ready to pitch by the season opener Feb. 14 against Bucknell. In football-related news, Holbrook said he spoke with Shon Carson, and Carson will focus on football this spring and will not be with the baseball team. He did leave the door open for Carson possibly to play in 2015.