By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
COLUMBIA – Though it sounds weird, Clemson is where it is today because of its freshmen.
“They have all had some really good moments this year and some have had some freshmen moments, too, but they have brought our older guys to the ballpark because they do work hard,” Clemson head coach Jack Leggett said Thursday.
That hard work has helped the Tigers (39-20) land in the NCAA’s Columbia Regional as the No. 2 seed for a second straight year. Clemson will play Liberty tomorrow at 1 p.m. in the first game of the Columbia Regional.
It’s Clemson’s 19th NCAA Tournament appearance under Leggett in his 20 seasons there. But what separates this team from Leggett’s other 18 teams is its youth. In all, eight freshmen have played the role as either major contributors or have played a major part in a victory or two.
“The biggest thing is they have matured over the year,” centerfielder Thomas Brittle said. “They have grown a lot in regards to how to play the college game instead of trying to adapt in the process.
“They have been big contributors this year and we are looking for big things out of them this weekend so I think that is the biggest thing along with other guys who have just kind of stepped into their roles.”
Against No. 1 overall seed North Carolina last week, freshmen were responsible for six of the Tigers’ seven runs, plus freshman Zack Erwin held down the Tar Heels’ powerful lineup, limiting them to two runs on five hits in five and 1/3 innings of work.
“There are no more freshmen on this team anymore,” catcher Garrett Boulware said. “They have had a whole year to play so we are all on the same level. They have definitely matured and they have surprised me, but I definitely think at this point in the year they are playing as if they are sophomores and juniors.
“They are great athletes and great baseball players so I expect big weekends out of them.”
It was the freshmen that helped turn the season around in a 5-4 victory at North Carolina on April 1. The Tigers were 16-11 at the time and freshman Matthew Crownover got the start. The lefty went four and 2/3 innings to keep North Carolina at bay, while freshman shortstop Tyler Krieger had two hits and drove in a run.
“We came back and won a one-run ball game and that catapult us and we won eleven in a row after that,” Leggett said.
Clemson won 23 of its next 27 after that, and positioned itself to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division before losing two straight at Florida State to close the regular season. During that stretch, the freshmen really came on. Krieger had game-winning hits against Presbyterian College and Georgia Tech, while right fielder Steven Duggar had a walk-off home against Wake Forest and Kevin Bradley did the same against USC Upstate.
Maleeke Gibson, who struggled early in the season, has come on in the last month and has become a valuable player as the lead-off man in the Tigers’ lineup.
On the mound this year, freshman Clate Schmidt earned a 6-3 victory over South Carolina, while Crownover and Erwin, who will start against Liberty on Friday, have a combined for a 12-3 record as starters.
“Our young guys have been very mature since the day they showed up on campus. They have been very motivated and very hungry,” Leggett said. “They did not take anything for granted and did not expect anything or to be handed anything.
“They have worked hard for everything they have earned… They all are going to be good players for this program. They are good players now, but they are really going to be a good nucleus for this team in the future. They are not out there thinking they deserve to have something without earning it. I like their attitude from the very beginning. I think they have been a good component of this team.”