For Lee and Clemson baseball, greater conquests await
|Monday, June 6, 2016, 2:45 PM- -|
CLEMSON – The roar is back in Clemson baseball.
As an Andrew Cox grounder settled into the glove of Oklahoma St. first baseman Dustin Williams early Monday morning, it marked the official end of the 2016 Clemson baseball season. I packed up my bag for the walk to the McFadden team room for postgame interviews, but as I walked out onto the balcony something caught my attention.
Under NCAA rules, the host teams at regionals, and super regionals can’t play personalized music – Danny Cannon can’t sing about his Tigers during the seventh inning stretch, players can’t have their own walk-up songs, and the players and coaches didn’t get to hear the music of the Clemson alma mater.
That didn’t deter the baseball team – and the fans that were left in the stadium. The players and coaches locked arms and sang the alma mater with their fans, doing a more than credible job for a group of men that was hurting in ways we can never imagine. And then I heard this verse….
“That Tiger’s roar may echo, o’er the mountain height”
The fans heard them loud and clear, and I smiled to myself, thinking that this team had overachieved once again, singing better and louder than I thought they could accomplish in the immediate aftermath of a tough loss. But I shouldn’t have been surprised – this team has overachieved all season, and it was one heck of a ride.
As for the roar, rest of the country heard them as well. The roar is back in Clemson baseball, and while this program hadn’t fallen into the pits and head coach Monte Lee didn’t need to re-invent the proverbial wheel, there were issues that needed to be addressed. There are still issues that need to be addressed, but 2016 went a long towards setting a foundation for a program that should compete for a spot in Omaha each season.
Following one of the earlier media sessions with the team – before the first game – I walked to my car with another media member, and we talked about our expectations for this season. His thoughts were that this team would struggle to win 25 games, that the lack of pitching and defense would cost them wins. I couldn’t find fault with his assessment.
My own best guess? I knew that Lee was a master motivator, and I was certain he could get 30 wins and maybe a little more out of this roster. Making the NCAA Tournament? I knew it depended on the pitching…could they find enough arms to fill out a weekend rotation and score enough runs to overcome the lack of pitching depth and the defense.
Instead, Lee’s band of cardiac cats won several games in walk-off and thrilling fashion, straightened out the midweek woes and clawed and fought their way to 44 wins and an ACC Championship.
I can’t fathom that a team can win 44 games without a dominant Friday night and Saturday starter and a lack of defined roles in the bullpen. It’s not supposed to work that way, but Lee and pitching Andrew See and assistant coaches Greg Starbuck, Bradley LeCroy and David Kopp used enough bailing wire, duct tape, band-aids and patches to see this team through the season. Pieces were mixed and matched – Pat Krall could start one day and relieve the next – and other pitchers were moved around as needed. The lineup was full of moving parts as Lee endeavored to find someone, anyone, that could make a throw to first without airmailing it or bouncing it. He moved parts around to find someone, anyone, that could run a straight line to the baseball in the outfield and not run post patterns and fly routes as the ball fell undisturbed to the grass.
Somehow, it all worked in spectacular fashion. There were blowout wins and blowout losses, and there were moments that took our breath away and moments we held our breath in frustration.
This team wasn’t expected to host a regional. They weren’t expected to win an ACC Championship. They weren’t expected to be a national seed. They weren’t expected to have the ACC Player of the Year and ACC Rookie of the Year. But this team lived by defying expectations, and now the expectations for the future are high.
This team will have to deal with certain and possible departures – Krall and Chris Okey and Reed Rohlman and Eli White and Weston Wilson and Alex Bostic will all have decisions to make after this week’s baseball draft. Lee will know in short order what he will have to work with next season, and he will recruit to fill those holes and the glaring deficiencies he knows has to be fixed.
But for one moment, on a hot a humid night under the moonlight, the players sang with full hearts. But there is a part to the alma mater that isn’t sung at sporting events, and it fits when describing this program.
”We will dream of greater conquests
For our past is grand”
Clemson has a long and storied baseball history and stands as one of the elite programs in NCAA history.
But greater conquests await.