“I’m a head coach for the first time,” Holbrook said Thursday. “But when we’ve played Clemson, I’ve been as anxious, as nervous as I will be tomorrow.”
The Gamecocks (6-1) open a three-game series with the rival Tigers (5-2) tonight at Clemson. It’s the first time since 1997 South Carolina won’t be led by Ray Tanner, the two-time national championship coach who became the school’s athletic director last July.
Tanner’s program was a Tiger-killer the past few seasons, particularly in the biggest games. South Carolina won two in a row over Clemson at the 2010 College World Series on the way to its first crown. A season ago, the Gamecocks knocked the Tigers from the NCAA regional with a pair of one-run victories. The Gamecocks have won 18 of the past 25 games in the series.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett said it will be strange not to see Tanner looking back when the coaches meet at home plate. That won’t change his team’s focus or the stakes of the early-season showdown.
“I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen faces come and go,” said Leggett, Clemson’s coach since 1994. “It’s still the same two teams playing.”
The series shifts to Greenville’s minor-league park about 30 minutes from Clemson’s campus on Saturday. The teams’ conclude Sunday at South Carolina’s Carolina Stadium.
There are several rivalry standouts missing this year. South Carolina slugger Christian Walker, ace Michael Roth and closer Matt Price all left for pro careers. The Tigers don’t have their best player from a year ago in Richie Shaffer, who was also drafted last June.
Behind the yearly football rivalry, there’s typically no bigger face-off for fans than baseball. Clemson’s made 12 trips to the CWS in its history, half of those under Leggett. South Carolina reached Omaha, site of the CWS, six times since 2002, winning the title in 2010 and 2011 before finishing runner-up to Arizona last summer.
Holbrook knows he’s got large footsteps to follow and Clemson will be a strong early test of his leadership.
“We’ve been fortunate to be on the good side of things the last couple of years, but not because we have been that much better. When the games have been in the balance, we have made a critical play here or there, made a critical pitch here or there,” Holbrook said.
That was especially true in last year’s NCAA regional at Carolina Stadium. Clemson led 4-2 in the eighth in a winner’s bracket game before South Carolina rallied for a 5-4, 12-inning victory. The Gamecocks took the regional title the next night 4-3 as Clemson left the tying run on base in the ninth.
“Most of the fans would base our football season on whether we beat (South) Carolina or not,” said Daniel Gossett, the Tigers starting pitcher tonight. “So to know that they were the ones who put us out of the tournament was just an extra, extra weight on our shoulders.”
“Being honest here, these games are important,” Holbrook said. “It’s Clemson versus South Carolina. It’s important to them. It’s important to us.”