The No. 7 seed Florida Gators defeated No. 10 seed South Carolina 2-1 on Tuesday at the SEC tournament in Hoover, Alabama. The Gamecocks (27-28) clinched their first losing season since 1996.
Here’s what head coach Mark Kingston had to say after the game.
“I think at this point this season, most coaches are going to tell you how proud they are of their team. And that’s exactly how I do feel. It’s real, it’s genuine. This team went through so much this year, and just never gave in to the injuries, the adversity. We use a lot of mottos, a lot of cliches, to get through it, you know — it’s a marathon, stay in the fight, never quit, don’t give up, all those things. And anybody who watched us played tonight saw the makeup of this team. They saw what they’re made of. They saw (Will Sanders) pitch and they played with their heart, and that’s all we ask for them, no matter what we were going through. They gave us everything they had, and that’s all we can ask.”
Can you tell us what’s going on inside the dugout and what it means to you to see the emotions come out of your players?
“We care. We care. At the end of the day, when you’re invested, you care, and this group cares. And anybody that was near our dugout saw how energetic and lively that team was. We just kept saying it, stay in the fight. We said that a lot — stay in the fight, don’t ever give up, never give in, you’re never knocked out till it’s over. These guys did that. And so the emotion is just disappointment in not having the success in the win-loss column that we know is expected, but also keeping the context of why that happened. Along the way, guys did not give into to the frustration, to the adversity.
“Some years everything goes right and you stay healthy. And all the prospects turn into production guys, and everything goes right. And in some years, it’s just whatever can go wrong can go wrong. In both those situations, you’ve got to handle it properly. When everything’s going well, you’ve got to learn how to win with class. And when everything is going wrong, like it did for this year, I think you’ve got to teach guys and you’ve got to try to make sure the group never gives in. And this was the latter, this year was the latter.
“And again, that was a hell of a ballgame out there. It could have gone either way. And we fought till the very bitter end. And that’s what I’m going to remember from this group. We fought to the very bitter end, when they knew the disappointment around the program and the win-loss record, but also within the context of why it’s happened. They could have given in and they did not, and so that’s what I’m going to take away from this group.”
Mark can you just take me through that weird 10th inning there where the ball bounces off the bag and kind of take us through the play at the plate there?
“Yeah, well again, it’s like I said, one of those years where everything that could go wrong goes wrong. In a tight ballgame ... one bounce can be one team’s great fortune and the other team’s misfortune. We were on the line, like you’re supposed to be on the line. Jalen (Vasquez) was in position ... and the ball hits hits the bag and goes over his head. I mean, sometimes you just have to say that’s what’s meant to be.
“That was a crazy inning. The inning that we tied the ballgame was a crazy inning. ... If we were gonna go down, we were gonna go down being aggressive, pushing the envelope, playing with no fear. And that’s what we did.
“And again at the end, it was it was a bang-bang, play at plate — the ball clearly beat the runner, but we just dropped the ball. And sometimes that happens. And that’s a great, great summary of life. Sometimes you just drop the ball.”
Coach, seeing a guy like (Florida pitcher) Brandon Sproat two times in one week, how do you feel your team handled that challenge?
“Well, that’s an elite arm. That’s a guy that will pitch in the big leagues. It seemed like every time I looked over my left shoulder out to the scoreboard and they showed the Trackman with 97-98 (mph). So that’s an elite arm. And I don’t know that the hitters were seeing the ball great tonight on both sides. I think that played a factor in the fact that it was a 2-1 ballgame. Both pitchers are outstanding, both pitchers are going to pitch in the big leagues. But I also think it was just one of those nights where guys weren’t really picking the ball up. And so the pitchers really took advantage of that. And the hats off to Sproat. It’s an elite arm. Not many people thought he would make it to college out of high school, but he did. And he’s taken advantage of it, because he’s gonna have a really good career.”
Mark, you mentioned some of the disappointment around the win-loss record or in the program. Obviously Gamecock fans very high expectations. Just what would your message be to fans who, you know, might come away from this maybe a little disappointed.
“We’re all disappointed. We’re all disappointed. But again, in my opinion, the word context is what matters most. When you factor in you had 10 pitchers throughout the course of the season that pitched either very, very little or not at all, and what kind of impact they would have on our won-loss record. I mean, Mississippi State (coach) Chris Lemonis is a good friend of mine, and they lost a couple of pitchers and you saw how devastating it was to their overall season.
“We lost five times that, or three times that, based on whether you consider they lost two or three guys. It handcuffed us — it just did. And there are days I look up and say man, how do we win that many? And there are days that you look up and you say, man, if we had this guy or that guy, just two or three of the 10, it’s a completely different season.
“So my message is, we’re disappointed as well. But on the inside we know exactly what this team probably could have done had we just not been so unfortunate with the volume of injuries.”
I know the rule is two outs, you send the runner home. Considering who the runner was, Josiah Sightler (at second base), his ankle was struggling and where the ball was hit, is that still the right play (in the seventh inning)?
“Absolutely. (Third base coach Scott) Wingo made the right choice. And I told him as soon as he came in the dugout. I’ll give you the reasons why. Number one, with two outs, you generally do send the runner. Number two, we only had what, two or three hits at that point. So you don’t know if you’ll get another chance. Number three, because there were two outs, the infielders were really not paying a whole lot of attention to the runner. ... He got a good jump. And then lastly, it rained for about eight hours today. That was not a dry field. And so an outfielder has to has to come get that ball. It’s a hard play. Generally, you got to field it, you got to make a good throw, the catcher has to make a catch and tag, you combine a wet throw with that. To me, it was a no-brainer. Wingo did the right thing.”
The offense finished in the the bottom of most offensive categories. Just what do you attribute that to? What’s the frustration level? And maybe what’s the next step?
“To me, it’s very obvious. I’ll ask you a question. Do you know how many hitters are on the all freshmen team this year? I’ll give you the answer: three.
“Freshmen just did not play in our league this year, by and large. And tonight we started four, I think it was that we started four. So the top half of our lineup, I think on most days could go head to head with just about anybody in the league. But then the bottom of our lineup was a bunch of freshmen that are still needing to get stronger, still get adapted at this level, playing at the SEC level, which is the highest level of college baseball for the first time. To me, that’s the biggest reason why you just saw some unevenness with that offense.
“On good days, we were pretty good. We had some really good days. And then there were days when you face a guy like Brandon Sproat, freshmen trying to put together runs and rallies with freshmen when the guy’s out there throwing 98. It’s a challenge and those guys will learn from it, they’ll get better from it. They always do. Wingo is a perfect example, he’s a much better player as an older player than he was as a freshman.
“So, to me, that’s the biggest reason you look at why the offense was like this. The first half of the lineup was experienced and old, like most of us the league this year, but we were the youngest bottom of the order and really by far.”