2016 was a year of change for Clemson baseball, something that is rare for such a storied program. Head coach Jack Leggett, gone. In his place, Monte Lee from College of Charleston. He is the third Clemson baseball coach since 1958. A new man at the top always brings questions, especially to a program like Clemson. The Tigers have always been a national power, but they never have been bale to get that elusive College World Series title.
This change, coupled with team performances over the last several years, left many fans realistic if not optimistic. Getting into the NCAA Tournament seemed to be a stretch for this team. Hosting a Regional and being a National Seed? That just seemed like fantasy. This was a team with some talent, but a lack of depth, especially on the pitching staff would be the downfall of this team for many pundits.
Instead we got one of the better seasons of Clemson baseball in recent memory. Last year we complained about Clemson's inability to win midweek games. This year Clemson only lost 1. Some of them weren't pretty, but wins are wins and every one counts. Clemson also did an excellent job in one run games, winning nearly 15 of them on the season, many of them after coming from behind late.
The season itself started well for Clemson. A soft early schedule helped the Tigers gain confidence early. Clemson went 17-3 over their first 20 games before running into a rather tough Miami team. Everyone came down to earth after getting swept there. The ACC schedule hit Clemson hard, the Tigers hovered around .500 in conference play all year but they did punctuate it with a series win over Florida State and sweeping Notre Dame to end the season.
Then came the ACC Tournament. Normally we don't play well at the tournament. I've come to just expect 3 games and home with no real hope after the first couple of innings of game 1. Clemson decided to change that this year. The Virginia win was great, beating Louisville rather satisfying, and coming from behind to beat Wake Forest was just something Clemson has done all year.
Of course the ACC Championship game was something special. Anytime your team starts off absolutely spanking the opponent life is good. Yes, the final score was a bit close, but this game was pretty much over after the 3rd inning, the remaining 6 were just filler.
Sadly things didn't end well for Clemson in the Regional. Despite what seemed to be an easy Regional with Oklahoma State, Nebraska, and Western Carolina, Clemson ran into an extremely hot Oklahoma State team that is now headed to Omaha. It is a frustrating end to the season, but one filled with accomplishment.
Perhaps more important than the results this season was the change in demeanor. Gone was a certain tightness around the team. Players were actually swinging the bat rather than watching the ball dance by. Instead of losing close games the team was winning them. There was a certain level of fun around this club that didn't exist the past 5 or so seasons. That comes from Coach Lee and it should serve Clemson well.
Going forward the future is once again bright at Clemson. Though there will still be challenges, Clemson has to find some more pitching depth and raise the team's defensive ability, there is enough hope to suggest that under Coach Lee Clemson can challenge for that elusive College World Series title and continue to be one of the dominant programs in college baseball.
We'll have player specific reviews for the entire roster in the coming days to round out our coverage of the 2016 Clemson baseball season.