By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Head coach Chad Holbrook knows he and his South Carolina team face a must-win situation tomorrow morning in the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
They must win to have any shot of getting into the NCAA Tournament.
And they must win for the future of Holbrook and the South Carolina program.
South Carolina, which finished the regular season 32-23 and 13-17 in the SEC, faces Vanderbilt at 10:30 a.m. ET Tuesday. If it wins, it moves into the double-elimination round of the tournament. If it loses, its season is likely over
"I think we need to win tomorrow," Holbrook said of his team's postseason hopes. "I know our RP is in the 30s, and that's OK, but we have got to give somebody a reason to get us in that conversation, and I think that starts with winning tomorrow. Our players understand that."
Holbrook also understands that his future may also depend on it. He has been under intense scrutiny this season as the Gamecocks have endured a highly disappointing season after being ranked in the top five in the country in the preseason. They have lost eight consecutive SEC series and will likely miss the NCAA Tournament for the second time if three years if they don't win tomorrow.
Holbrook knows what all is at stake.
"I just take it one step at a time," he said Thursday as his team prepared to leave for Hoover. "I have a lot of things to worry about, and the first thing I have to worry about is my team and playing tomorrow. I'm going to be OK, one way or the other. I'm not worried about Chad Holbrook. I'm worried about getting our team to play the best baseball it can, and hopefully we will do that tomorrow."
Holbrook, who is in his fifth year as head coach after replacing legendary coach Ray Tanner, takes full responsibility for his team's struggles this season. Prior to 2015, the Gamecocks had not had a losing season in the SEC since 1997, Tanner's first year. It had never lost eight straight series until this season.
Holbrook has heard the criticism from fans and feels the pressure to turn things around and succeed.
"It's not been the easiest season, but when you coach in the SEC and you coach at South Carolina, I'm a big boy and I can handle it," he said. "You have to embrace the expectations here.
"Yes, things haven't gone our way. Yes, we've had some injuries and we've had some issues beyond our control, but at South Carolina, no matter what, there are no excuses. You need to win. We'e had some disappointing games, obviously, and lost some close ones, and that's my responsibility. I'm the head coach and it starts and ends with me, and I get that."
Holbrook, who has led South Carolina to the NCAA Tournament three times and to the Super Regionals twice, still believes he can reach the ultimate goal — leading the Gamecocks back to the College World Series in Omaha.
"I haven't lost one ounce of confidence in myself," he said Thursday. "I feel in my heart I'm a good baseball coach and a good person, I know the game, and I know I can be a successful coach and I can get the Gamecocks back to Omaha. That's what I believe."
Holbrook, who was an assistant under Tanner when the Gamecocks won back-to-back College World Series in 2010-2011, talks to Tanner often. He knows the two will have a difficult conversation if the Gamecocks don't perform well in the SEC Tournament and miss the NCAA Tournament.
"Coach understands," he said. "He understands what the expectations are, and no one wants to win more than him and no once wants to win more than me. We have conversations daily and all throughout the year. He knows my feelings and I certainly lean on him in all aspects of life, not just my professional life.
"I'm sure once this thing is over we'll sit down and talk, but it's not over. Let's go win and try to put ourselves back in the conversation."
Holbrook says his players have heard the criticism from disgruntled fans and feel the pressure of high expectations, but he doesn't believe it has affected their performance on the field.
"Those guys are on social media a lot. They have access to a lot of things that are being said, and our guys don't live in a bubble. I haven't noticed it affecting them much," he said. "… I'm sure some of the things being said about the disappointing season, I'm sure has hurt, but they understand that they are playing at South Carolina and the expectations are to win, and we understand that."
They hope to change that in Hoover. They are coming off a 10-0 win over Georgia after dropping the first two games of the series.
Vanderbilt, which won two of three against South Carolina to start the Gamecocks' SEC skid, is 33-21-1 overall and 15-13-1 after it's final regular-season game against Alabama ended in a tie.
South Carolina will start senior Reed Scott, who has spent most of the season in the bullpen. Scott pitched well in two late-season starts, however, after the loss of ace Clarke Schmidt. Holbrook said closer Tyler Johnson is also available for extended duty, as are Josh Reagan and other relievers.
No. 1 starter Wil Crowe, who started against Georgia on Thursday, might be available against Kentucky on Wednesday if the Gamecocks win Tuesday.
"Obviously it's very, very important for us to play well tomorrow against a really, really good Vanderbilt team," Holbrook said. "We've going to try to play our best baseball of the year, hopefully. That's what it's going to take. It's a do-or-die deal tomorrow, and we are very aware of that."
The Gamecocks have had little luck in Hoover. They have not won an SEC Tournament game since 2012 and are 0-7 under Holbrook. It's time to change that.
"There's been some years we have gone down there and had such a great regular season, maybe the focus wasn't there where it needed to be," Holbrook said. "… Certainly we didn't play our best baseball, but you are also playing real good teams and that happens is this league from time to time. It's time to turn that trend around."