CLEMSON – Ever since Clemson was eliminated in its own NCAA Regional last June by Oklahoma State, Monte Lee has dreamt of this moment.
“I don’t sleep very good,” Lee said. “So I don’t dream.”
Because of that, Clemson’s second-year coach tends to focus on reality and the here-and-now, which explains why he and his team were talking only about UNC Greensboro, their opening-game opponent, Thursday on the eve of this year’s Clemson Regional at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
The “six wins away from Omaha” mantra isn’t part of Lee’s approach.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years about looking that far ahead,” Lee said. “You start looking six games away, you start looking six outs away, the next thing you know you lose.
“I’ve learned the hard way many, many times, so I don’t do that anymore. I’ve learned my lesson; I don’t count down the outs. You’ve got to stay in the moment.”
The 15th-ranked team's next “moment” will unfold tonight when the Tigers (39-19) open play against No. 4-seed UNC Greensboro (35-22). The winner will face the winner of Friday’s early game between No. 2-seed Vanderbilt (33-22-1) and No. 3-seed St. John’s (42-11).
Unlike last season, when the Tigers entered NCAA play having won 13 of 16 games, including four in a row en route to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title, Clemson enters Friday's game having lost 12 of its final 16.
“We came in hot last year, and this year we kind of cooled off,” Clemson sophomore slugger Seth Beer said. “But we’re in the same place, same time. We have just as good of a chance as we did last year. I think we learned you can’t take anything game for granted, any inning, any pitch. Coach says this is like a brand-new season, and it is. We have a clean slate; we just need to play to the best of our abilities.”
Redshirt sophomore Alex Eubanks (6-5) will get the start Friday night against UNC Greensboro; Charlie Barnes is expected to start on Saturday.
“We went back and forth on it all week long before we made that final decision,” Lee said. “We just felt like when you look at the matchups, we have the chance of winning a regional by going with Eubanks in Game 1 and Barnes in Game 2. That’s the bottom line. We’re trying to get to the championship game.
“Pick your poison. When either guy is on and doing what he does, it’s truly a 1A and a 1B. Alex has had some unbelievable starts for us. When he’s on, he’s as good as anybody we’ve got. He’s a big-time competitor.”
Clemson will face Bryce Hensley (7-7), a 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior lefty for the Spartans, who won last week’s Southern Conference Tournament title at Greenville’s Fluor Field.
“We’ve got to find a way to hit a left-hander who’s got a very good fastball, a good slider, and has had success for them,” Lee said.
UNC Greensboro is coached by Link Jarrett, a former player at Florida State, and the other two teams in the regional – Vanderbilt and St. John’s – have strong Clemson ties. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin served as an assistant coach at Clemson from 1994 to 2002, and St. John’s assistant Mike Hampton was an All-America third baseman for the Tigers in 1994 and later served as a volunteer assistant for one season at Clemson.
Clemson will be hosting an NCAA Regional for a 15th time and making its 42nd NCAA Tournament appearance, which ranks as the fifth-most in NCAA history.
Despite having logged 58 games this season, incentive won’t be a problem.
“As a player, you get to the end of the year and your body’s starting to feel it,” Beer said. “You’re running on fumes, yet there’s something driving you. You don’t know exactly what it is, but something’s there pushing you every pitch, every at-bat, and that’s what makes the postseason so special.”
Scott Keepfer, The Greenville News