South Carolina Has Become A Baseball Hotbed

As they sat down for the press conference previewing the College World Series title round last June, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner and UCLA coach John Savage noted one team’s size advantage.

Savage joked that Tanner could have his paparazzi of 50 local beat writers. By contrast, it turned out the two largest newspapers that cover the Bruins had hired onsite freelancers to handle their College World Series coverage.

“They’re in Hollywood, and they don’t get nearly the attention we get,” Tanner said.

Which factors in as one of the potential reasons college baseball in the state of South Carolina could be at its zenith.

The Gamecocks clawed for their first national championship in four CWS appearances the last nine years. Clemson reached the semifinal round, a stellar feat irrevocably stained for its fan base because the in-state rival eliminated the Tigers en route to the title.

The Palmetto State put five representatives in the 64-team NCAA tournament field, including two other higher seeds in Coastal Carolina and College of Charleston.

That those two programs have likewise become routine presences on the national map—Charleston even cracked Baseball America’s preseason rankings at No. 20—speaks to bigger picture evolution of college baseball in a state where football reigns and these programs’ regional competitors hold several distinct advantages.

Consider that just three states had more NCAA tourney participants (Texas, Florida and California, each with six). The smallest of those states, Florida, holds more than four times the population of South Carolina.

“Because our state is so small, a kid can jump in the car and drive two hours in any direction and see quality college baseball,” Charleston coach Monte Lee said. “It’s easy for kids and fans in our state to identify with the teams in our state.”

The state’s ascension into the upper echelon of baseball farmlands has hardly been an overnight phenomenon; it produced six NCAA tourney teams in 2005.

Rather, the mutual sustained success of the state’s two flagship institutions appears to have generated a momentous surge that has swept in collateral benefactors.

n South Carolina (6,758 per home game) and Clemson (4,694) ranked among the top seven programs nationally in attendance, and Coastal Carolina (1,318 per home game) cracked the top 50 at No. 42—one spot behind three-time CWS runner-up North Carolina, six spots ahead of UCLA.

The Citadel averaged 1,124 per home game, and South Carolina-Aiken regularly ranks among the top five in Division II attendance.

n Whether by cause, effect or cyclical combination, the in-state programs also figure to benefit from heightened media exposure.

South Carolina credentialed more than 100 media members for last year’s super regional. Front-page sports section coverage of college baseball is standard throughout the regular season, and there is perhaps a wider range by which South Carolina and Clemson games are available to hear by radio broadcast than in the markets of the other major national programs.

Sports fans in South Carolina tend to have their vested interest in college athletics, in part because there is no major pro franchise in the state. UCLA, by comparison, had to compete for local coverage during the CWS with the Lakers in the NBA Finals and the Dodgers in midseason.

“Kids that grow up in this state really end up pulling for one of the schools pretty hard, and there’s an identity there,” Lee said.

n And in an economic climate where many colleges are trimming baseball and other so-called non-revenue sport budgets—if not the program altogether (see California, Duquesne, Vermont, et al)—South Carolina’s universities are investing resources to expand their baseball growth.

The Gamecocks are entering their third season in a spiffy $35 million baseball stadium constructed for the program’s sole use. In mid-January, Clemson unveiled plans for a $5 million complex inside Doug Kingsmore Stadium that will include locker rooms, training facility and club seating. Coastal Carolina moved into a new field house and conditioning center last summer, construction has begun on a new $1.5 million indoor practice facility, and the school has raised about half the funds toward a $10 million demolition and reconstruction of its stadium.

“Our institutions value baseball as a premiere sport, and there aren’t a lot of mid-major schools in the country which can say that,” Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said.

Such support is believed to be one of the reasons Tanner left his alma mater, North Carolina State, for the South Carolina job in 1997.

Solid Coaching Staffs

Of course, the aforementioned elements might be moot points if not for the value of the on-field product, for which the coaching staffs deserve their share of credit.

While South Carolina and Clemson have storied baseball traditions dating to the 1970s, they have proven consistently formidable under Tanner and Jack Leggett, respectively. The Gamecocks have missed the NCAAs just twice in Tanner’s 14 seasons; the Tigers a meager once in Leggett’s 17 seasons.

After a successful stint at USC-Aiken, Gilmore returned to Coastal Carolina, his alma mater, to rebuild a fledgling program in 1996. The Chanticleers have made the NCAAs eight of the last 10 years and earned a national seed in 2010, when they won their second regional in three years.

One of Leggett’s assistants, John Pawlowski, likewise took over a sub-.500 Charleston team in 2000 and gradually built up to three consecutive NCAA appearances (2004-06) before being hired by Auburn in 2009. Lee, a Tanner assistant, was Pawlowski’s replacement.

Hoping to tap into that formula, Winthrop fired popular coach Joe Hudak after 19 seasons and replaced him with Clemson assistant Tom Riginos, who had spent eight years by Leggett’s side. The Citadel returned to the NCAAs for the first time since 2004 under 17th-year coach Fred Jordan.

Their recipes for success have varied, as have the degrees by which they lean on in-state kids as their program foundation—given what should be a smaller talent pool being raided by more sources.

South Carolina tends to bring in hordes of in-state kids, then surround the best ones with elite talents from Tanner’s old stomping grounds in eastern North Carolina, Florida junior colleges or Virginia. Clemson carries significantly fewer in-state kids but more openly taps into Leggett’s New England connections as well as the surrounding regional states. Gilmore has shown an inclination to recruit athletes whom he can mold for his team-oriented style of ball. Last season, The Citadel rode the pitching arm of supplemental first-rounder Asher Wojciechowski, who was lightly recruited at nearby Beaufort High School.

Lee has followed Tanner’s blueprint with Charleston, likewise using its ties to Spartanburg Methodist College effectively. This offseason, the Cougars landed a prolific hitting in-state outfielder, Marty Gantt, who signed with South Carolina out of high school and held offers from Auburn, Tennessee and N.C. State out of junior college.

For that matter, having your college located in one of the East Coast’s major vacation attraction spots cannot hurt, either. Proximity to prime beaches is another built-in advantage for Coastal (Myrtle Beach), Charleston and The Citadel (Charleston). It is hardly a coincidence Coastal Carolina’s roster features players from 18 different states.

“Being able to tell a kid he can come down into pretty good weather and play quality baseball,” Lee said, “is a real selling point.”