Gamecocks Associate Head Coach Monte Lee has seen the teams’ rivalry from a unique perspective, since he has coached both sides. Whichever team he was coaching won 26 of the 40 games played. (Photo by Noah Hale)
Some call it “the greatest rivalry in college baseball.”
It may not be a heavyweight fight every year. And it doesn’t always decide who’s moving on to the College World Series finals like it did in 2002 or 2010.
But the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry matters to this state and to Gamecocks Associate Head Coach Monte Lee.
He’s happy “just to be a part of it is a special thing,” Lee said.
The Lugoff native has seen the rivalry from both sides. He wore garnet and black as an assistant from ‘03 to ‘08 and was clad in orange and purple as the Tigers’ skipper from ‘16 to ‘22.
“Just imagine someone from the state of South Carolina just being able to say they’ve been able to coach 14 series in the rivalry over the course of their career,” Lee said. “It’s just very humbling. And it’s something that I’m very proud of, quite honestly, just to be a part of it.”
Lee is now back in Columbia, coaching Gamecock bats that have propelled the team to third in the NCAA in runs.
The undefeated Gamecocks notched 105 runs in their first nine games. It took the team 16 games to eclipse 100 runs last year. And, right now, the Gamecocks’ 27 home runs lead the NCAA.
“We didn’t know what level of power we would hit for this year,” Lee said. “We’ve done a good job hitting the ball out of the ballpark.”
Lee has drilled it into his batters not to chase balls out of the strike zone.
If it leads to borderline balls being called strikes, “so be it,” Lee said.
So far? It’s worked.
The Gamecocks lead the Southeastern Conference and are fifth in the NCAA in bases on balls.
He “talks a lot about controlling the strike zone,” said fifth-year Infielder Will McGillis. “We just try and do the same thing every day. We’re going to work on our process.”
South Carolina ranks near the top of the country in most offensive stats. But the Tigers’ season hit a speed bump during the week leading up to the rivalry series.
The Tigers were swept by Central Florida the weekend before and dropped a midweek match to USC Upstate.
But first-year Clemson head coach Erik Bakich said his guys will be ready.
“We’ll have the utmost respect for this rivalry by the way we’ve prepared for it,” Bakich said following the team’s loss to USC Upstate. “That’s been since day one. That’s been since our first team meeting we were talking about it. Our guys will be excited.”
The coming series is the same as any other series, Lee said. But he’s familiar with most of the Tigers’ roster, since he just left in May.
Lee has coached 23 of the players on Clemson’s roster.
“It’s a little bit weird before the game starts,” Lee said. “You see the kids, and you just remember recruiting them. You remember coaching them and just being there with them through good times, and through bad times and all those special moments that you spend together.”
He just needs to focus and keep his players ready for a tough series, Lee said.
“The key for us is just don’t let the moment become too big,” Lee said. “Just stay calm, prepare, understand what we’re trying to do and just execute the game plan.”