Originally created 04/03/02

Clemson's baseball team on top



CLEMSON, S.C. -- When right-hander Steve Reba and shortstop Khalil Greene turned down pro contracts to play their senior seasons at Clemson, Tiger coach Jack Leggett started thinking his guys might be pretty good.

Now, everyone else in college baseball agrees. Clemson, at 23-1 before Tuesday's game with East Tennessee, is ranked No. 1 in the sport's three major polls.

It's the first time in seven seasons the Tigers were an unanimous No. 1 selection in polls by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball and ESPN/Baseball Weekly.

"We've had some pretty good teams up here," said Leggett, who has been to the College World Series three times in eight previous seasons with Clemson. "But I thought maybe this team could jump over the edge if those two kids came back to school."

Fueled by Reba, 7-0 this season, and Greene, hitting .490, the Tigers are off to their best start since opening 24-0 in 1977. That club also made the CWS in Omaha, Neb. - where this team hopes to return.

From the moment the Tigers were swept by eventual series champion Miami in the NCAA tournament's Super Regional last year, first baseman Michael Johnson said "we knew we wanted to do what we could to take one step further."

A big part of that was corralling Reba and Greene.

One of the trickiest tasks for a college baseball coach is convincing their junior stars back for a final year. You ask them to put off for one more year the dream of pro baseball that they likely had deferred after high school to come to college in the first place, Leggett said.

Once a player goes to college, he cannot be selected in the Major League Baseball draft until after his junior year.

Greene was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the 14th round; Oakland chose Reba in the 16th round.

Leggett wanted them badly, but let their past experiences and potential for success this season at Clemson sway them.

Greene and Reba both saw what the Tigers were building.

"It become more evident we have something special here," Reba said. "It was a great decision to come back and I think Khalil agrees."

Why wouldn't he?

Clemson has averaged more than 10 runs a game. Its pitchers have allowed fewer than 3 1/2 . That's a formula for lots and lots of blowouts.

"We've been real focused on what we have to do this year," Leggett said. "We're playing pretty well right now."

Reba has won 11 straight games, keeping opponents off balance with an assortment of deliveries. Greene, a converted third baseman, is more comfortable at shortstop and swinging an incredible bat with 48 hits in 98 at-bats. He also leads the Tigers with 37 RBIs.

"Honestly, I don't know where I'd pitch him," Leggett said.

And it's more than just Reba and Green.

Johnson, a junior, already has 12 homers after hitting 18 last season. Outfielder Kyle Frank is hitting .407 with nine doubles. Right-hander Matt Henrie is 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA to lead Clemson starters.

"Even when we struggle against opposing pitchers, we don't worry," Johnson said. "We know we're going to start figuring it out."

Leggett was proud of his team's unanimous ranking atop college baseball polls. But he realizes the Tigers have played only one series in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference and are a long way from purchasing tickets to Omaha.

"The guys have worked hard and this is a great honor," he said. "At the same time, we realize what kind of game baseball is. All this can be gone in a second."

For now, the players are going to enjoy being No. 1 without taking their eyes of the ultimate goal of an NCAA baseball championship, Johnson said.

"It seems like when we take the field since the rankings, the cheers are a little bit louder," he said. "We hope we can keep that going all year."