By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
South Carolina head baseball coach Chad Holbrook is in a unique position. When he needs advice or encouragement, he has one of the best college baseball coaches of all-time to turn to.
Holbrook was named head coach in 2012 by Ray Tanner, who won back-to-back national championships in 2010-11 and led the Gamecocks to the College World Series six times before being named Athletics Director. As AD, Tanner is always just a phone or call — or sometimes a few feet — away.
"He's like my brother and my dad and my boss all wrapped into one," said Holbrook, who was Tanner's associate head coach for four seasons before being named head coach. "He gets angry at me from time to time but you probably get mad at your family from time to time.
"At the end of the day, he is the person I respect most and anything he says I hold dear to my heart."
Holbrook has been leaning on Tanner a lot lately as he tries to lead his team out of a slump that has dropped it to 26-17 overall and 10-11 in the SEC. The Gamecocks have dropped 11 of its last 19 games and 10 of 15 in conference play, losing five straight SEC series for the first time in school history.
The Gamecocks, who have fallen to No. 25 in the country after being ranked in the top five early in the year, travel to No. 11 LSU for another crucial SEC series this weekend. They have nine SEC games remaining to turn things around before the SEC Tournament and what they hope will be a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Tanner, who led South Carolina to the NCAA Regionals 14 times in 16 seasons, has reminded Holbrook that some of his teams struggled in conference play as well, only to turn things around at the end.
In 2007, Tanner's Gamecocks were 9-9 in the SEC before winning seven of its last 11 games to finish 17-13 in the conference and advance to a NCAA Super Regional. In 2009, they were 9-12 before winning eight of their last nine conference games to finish 17-13 in the SEC and advance to NCAA Tournament play.
"He told me you are in a position I have been in many times, keep fighting, keep clawing, keep your guys believing and keep working hard and maybe the ball bounces your way," Holbrook said. "He tells me all the time, I have been in the same shoes."
At 10-11, South Carolina has nine more SEC games before the postseason tournament in Hoover, Ala. It travels to LSU this weekend and then Missouri next week before closing the season with a home series against Georgia. Despite a slow start in the conference and one of the worst SEC streaks in the past 20 years, Holbrook believes there is time to turn things around.
"You look at the history of the program, there have been a lot of great teams that have found their way the last several weekends and went on to the College World Series, and that's what he reminds me of," he said of Tanner. "Coaches who have coached in this league, whether it's South Carolina or LSU, they know exactly what it's like to play in this league. There are a lot of great teams who have gone through something very, very similar, if not worse, than where we are. We'll just keep fighting."
After another tough conference series against Kentucky last weekend, which featured 19-1 and 9-4 losses, the Gamecocks rebounded a bit on Wednesday, slugging three home runs in a non-conference win over Wofford. Sparked by some new faces in the lineup and a big home run by struggling Alex Destino, the Gamecocks appeared more relaxed.
"School is out, guys are having a little more fun," Holbrook said. "They can sleep in a little more, come to the park earlier, get a few more swings in. Maybe they are feeling a little more relaxed and a little less stress with the academic part over and maybe they can just relax and play. They were a relaxed group (Wednesday). That was good to see."
Now they face a daunting challenge in Baton Rouge, where the Gamecocks will face an LSU team that has won 10 of its last 14 games, including a sweep of Alabama last weekend, and features one of the best pitching staffs in the country. The Tigers are 21-5 at home.
"There have been many great teams — and I don't think we're great right now — go in there and get their tails kicked. It's obviously a hard place to win," Holbrook said. "It's a great environment, a great venue, but we will go down there and play well and try to put ourselves in a position to win."
Holbrook knows this is a huge series for his team. But as Tanner has reminded him, every weekend is a chance to turn things around and get on a roll.
"Every one of them is a huge challenge and a huge opportunity," Holbrook said. "They have been a really, really good team for a long time. We feel like we have been pretty good, even though we have scuffled some of late. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity."