CLEMSON— Out of the 64 teams in Division I baseball that made it to the NCAA Tournament, 63 of those teams will end their season having to face the media after a loss—and that was the case for the Clemson Tigers in the early hours Tuesday morning.
For the second straight season the Clemson Tigers baseball team earned the right to start their journey toward Omaha, and the College World Series, at home. And for the second straight season, the Tigers’ season ended as one of those downtrodden 63 teams—at home.
For Clemson head coach Monte Lee, the biggest takeaway he could give on the season was not filled with a list of things that the Tigers accomplished—but a note of gratitude for the players who have sacrificed to build something special.
“That’s a tough question at this point. It’s a tough moment. It’s really hard to put into word what you take away from a season 15 minutes or so after your season is over,” Lee said. “I would say my biggest takeaway is just how grateful I am to all of our players, all of these guys who have last year when I came in embraced me. And I’ve embraced them.
“We hate to see our season end this way. We’ve got a great group of young men who sacrificed and worked extremely hard for this program to try to put ourselves in this position, and they achieved a lot of really great things. You just hate it for them, hate it for the players, especially the guys that are leaving the program that were seniors or juniors that have a chance to move on. It’s just a tough moment right now.”
The journey to avenge last season’s home loss, began in fall.
While fans were clamoring for football, as the Tigers were in the midst of a national championship run, the baseball team was working to get better—to find a way to squeeze out a few more wins, that may ultimately carry them further than they went the year before.
Through the practices in the heat of fall, to the chill of winter, the thing that Lee noticed when no one else was looking were the things that would make any coach proud.
“They did it the right way. We had great chemistry this year. We had a group of guys that were selfless, that worked hard every day, we had a lot of guys that poured their heart and soul into this team,” Lee said. “We had a lot of highs and a lot of lows, but our guys showed up every day and did their very best that they could, and that’s all that I could ask from them.”
One of those players was redshirt graduate first baseman Andrew Cox.
The native of nearby Belton grew up a Clemson Tiger fan, and following his final game playing for the only team that he had ever hoped to play for, the Belton-Honea Path product bore his soul in an emotional thank-you to the program and the university.
“It’s everything that I could have ever imagined it to be. I think that if you cut me open, purple and orange would come out,” Cox said. “I have given everything to this program, and it’s given me everything and more back. I would not change a single thing about my experience here. I’ve got some life-long relationships that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
“And being able to wear this jersey every day, and represent this program, was a dream of mine since I was a kid. And to say that I got that opportunity and got to trot out onto Doug Kingsmore every day and play a game that I grew up loving—I don’t think that there’s anything more that you could ask for. I’m forever indebted to this university, this institution, this program. I love each and every one of my teammates. I love Coach Lee. I love my coaching staff and I appreciate the opportunities I was given during my time here.”
It is players like Andrew Cox that drive home the emotion when a season comes to a close.
Players move on–some graduate, some are drafted, but some like Cox will live on because of the unique combination of talent and heart that they have.
“When I was hired to be the coach at Clemson, when I went to do my press conference, that was one of the greatest days of my life and my professional life, there was one player who was there to greet me—to welcome me to Clemson. It was Andrew Cox,” Lee said. “I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget him coming to welcome me into his family. I had a group of players that were going through a transition, and he was the one that led the group of players, that had been in this program, to embrace me.”
For Lee, the void that Cox will leave on the Clemson baseball team will go beyond simply the player that embraced the second-year head coach when others were still lamenting the firing of former head coach Jack Leggett.
It is the void of leadership that Lee believes will be the biggest challenge as the Tigers look toward next season. But even as sad days like Monday night are a given, and even the price paid, for a profession in which you only get three to five years with a player, Lee takes pride in having known Cox for two of those years.
“I can’t tell you the number of coaches that we played against that came up to me and told me that Andrew Cox was the reason that your team has done what it’s done,” Lee said. “The energy, the positivity, the enthusiasm that he brings to the ballpark every day. He does not take a pitch off. He does it the right way, and is why when he leaves this program, in whatever he does, he’s going to be successful.
“That’s going to be the biggest void going into next year, is who is going to assume that leadership responsibility and energy that Andrew brought to this team and to this program every single day.”