A fun team to coach

TEMPE, Ariz. - It was during his postgame gathering with the media following a 7-3 victory over Wake Forest on March 15 to complete a three-game sweep of the Demon Deacons, when Clemson coach Jack Leggett first realized this year's Tigers had a chance to make a pretty good run in the postseason.

"We're not there yet," he said at the time. "But we have a couple of months to keep improving and I like where we are headed."

Clemson (44-20) is two wins from heading back to Omaha and the College World Series should they get past No. 5 national seed Arizona State in this weekend's Super Regional Series which starts Saturday at 9 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time.) at ASU's Packard Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

It's hard to imagine if anyone, other than themselves, envisioned the Tigers being this close to playing for a national championship after that Wake Forest series. At the time, injuries had haunted the pitching staff, especially starters like Trey Delk and Scott Weismann, plus closer Matt Vaughn was still trying to get back to full strength in the bullpen after off-season shoulder surgery.

Offensively, Clemson was still trying to find its way and adjust to a lineup that at the time had very little power and was filled with inconsistencies.

"It seems like we have always liked to make it tough on ourselves," first baseman Ben Paulsen said. "We've been resilient the whole year. We've been tough, and we've battled. That's the biggest thing Coach Leggett preaches on, being tough."

But like Leggett said, the Tigers fought through all the adversity and in the process got better along the way. Those that were injured have since returned and are contributing to the team in a major way. Delk, Weismann and Vaughn each had solid outings in last week's Clemson Regional and are a big reason why the Tigers are so close to achieving their No. 1 goal each season - the College World Series.

The bats have come alive too. Jeff Schaus and Wilson Boyd have stepped up and have given Paulsen the protection he needs as the clean-up hitter, while recently Chris Epps has given the team a lead-off man that's consistently getting on base, stealing bases and scoring runs.

Clemson, like Arizona State (47-12), is just one of a small handful of teams that has lost no more than two consecutive games at any point this season.

"That's how we have been playing all year," Clemson second baseman Mike Freeman said. "The last couple of weeks we have won some close games and have had some real battles, but I think it will pay dividends for us down the stretch."

For Leggett, who has taken Clemson to eight Super Regionals in 11 years, it's just been a fun ride to be a part of. He has enjoyed coaching this team, and unlike most of us, he knew they had the potential to be as good as they wanted to be.

"I very much enjoy coaching this team," he said. "We are young, but we have some salty veterans as well. We have a great mix and there is a lot of versatility and there are lot of things that you can do with this team."

And that comes from each guy truly carrying about the other. When Ryan Hinson was moved from being a regular starter to now a middle reliever, he didn't complain. When Addison Johnson was replaced in the lineup by Chris Epps, he did not complain. When Johnson replaced Kyle Parker last week, Parker did not say a word and later came off the bench to hit the game-winning hit against Oklahoma State to advance them to the Tempe Super Regional.

"When one guy falters, another guy will pick it up," Leggett said. "When starting pitching has been down, the relief pitching has been pretty good. If someone gets an opportunity to play, then the other guys is happy for him. It has been a good team effort so far this year.

"It is a lot of fun to coach and a lot of fun to come to practice every day with this group, and hopefully we will have a good weekend."

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