It’s a shame, a real shame.
That was the common refrain when the NCAA, SEC and sports conferences across the nation announced last week that it had suspended all athletic activities, including competition and practice, for the time being.
While everyone understands such moves are warranted and necessary to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, it’s still a shame for South Carolina coaches and athletes who saw their seasons end or put on hold.
It’s a shame for Dawn Staley’s women’s basketball team, which was likely headed for a berth in the Final Four and possibly a second national championship. It’s a shame for Frank Martin’s men’s team, which still had a shot to win the SEC Tournament and possibly make the NCAA Tournament.
And it’s also a shame for Mark Kingston’s baseball team, which had won five in a row and was headed into SEC play with momentum and a team that was gaining confidence.
“We had a great game the other night [a 10-1 win over The Citadel], a game we want to be able to build on because it feels like things are really starting to come together for us and we are starting to hit our stride,” Kingston said before getting word that the 2020 season has been placed on hold until at least April 15.
Kingston’s Gamecocks suffered four tough early-season losses, mostly due to a shaky bullpen that had trouble throwing strikes early in the season. But after series losses to Northwestern and Clemson, the bullpen began to work out the kinks and hit its stride.
South Carolina relievers threw eight hitless and scoreless innings in a 3-1, 12-inning win over Furman. It extended that streak to 13.2 innings during a sweep of Cornell and then threw eight more scoreless innings against The Citadel. During the five-game winning streak, the bullpen allowed just three runs and six hits over 26.2 innings, lowering the team ERA to 2.81.
As a head coach and former hitting coach, Kingston normally spends most of his time with position players. But after the bullpen’s struggles against Clemson, Kingston and pitching coach Skylar Meade had a meeting with the team’s pitchers and catchers to make changes to the group’s approach.
“Skyler is doing a great job but I felt like I needed to make a few statements and let them know how closely I am paying attention to what they are doing,” he said. “We did have a meeting with Skylar and myself and the pitchers and catchers and we talked about some things that we were going to be tweaked and how we were going to attack hitters and how guys were going to be used and how we were going to set up pitches, and so far, so good.”
Fortified by dominant closer Brett Kerry and with key relievers like Cam Tringali, Daniel Lloyd and TJ Shook starting to find the strike zone, along with the emergence of other important arms, Kingston was feeling confident about the group heading into SEC play.
“We knew talent-wise coming into the season they could do it,” Kingston said. “We had to tweak a couple of things along the way with usage of when they pitch, of types of pitches they throw, what percentage of fastballs, all those things we’ve had to make adjustments, but right now we think we are in a good spot.”
The Gamecock bats were also coming around. Brady Allen leads the team with a .327 average, while Wes Clarke leads the SEC in home runs with eight. Allen is one of three hitters batting over .300 along with Noah Myers (.324) and Andrew Eyster (.304).
Kingston is particularly pleased with Clarke and Allen, two sophomores who have raised their games after struggling as freshmen.
“You are just seeing a guy whose game is starting to come together for him,” Kingston said of Clarke. “Brady Allen is a similar guy, a sophomore who has really built on his freshman experience. Both of those guys have really taken nice steps for us.”
It’s a shame Kingston and his team won’t get to see if they can carry that momentum — at least for now — to the next level.
“It’s a shame for the fans, it’s a shame for the players who have worked so hard to get to this point,” Kingston said during his weekly press conference last week.
Two days later, he added “[But] our number one concern is the health and safety of our student-athletes. We send thoughts and prayers to all that have been and will be affected by the Coronavirus. We trust our department leadership to guide us through this challenging and unprecedented time [and] we encourage our team to use this life experience to emerge wiser and stronger."