USC Upstate: Path to first-ever NCAA Tournament is clear

After coming close the last few years, the Spartans are in prime shape to reach their first-ever regional.

USC Upstate

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In June of 2019, when Mike McGuire took over USC Upstate, the Spartans had just endured an eight-win inaugural campaign in the Big South Conference. Longtime head coach Matt Fincher — who guided the program in the transition from D-II — had stepped down after a 22-year tenure. The program was staring down a stretch of seven straight losing seasons.

In the four years that have followed, McGuire — taking lessons learned from his successful time at Morehead State and leaning on a core group of assistants — has built USC Upstate into a consistent Big South contender, coming up just short of dethroning Campbell last year. Now, with the Camels off to the Coastal Athletic Association, the Spartans are aiming to firmly establish themselves as the team to beat in the conference.

After all, they’ve posted a record of 66-24-1 (.731) in regular season play the last three years. And all four of their conference tournament defeats under McGuire, including last year’s championship loss, have come to Campbell.

The program’s growth can be traced to their performances against their frequent conference foe. Back in 2021, heading into a pivotal series with the Camels in mid-May, the Spartans were 34-10 and featured in “Field of 64” projections. Three losses later, Campbell had taken the pole position away from Upstate. They went on to secure the Big South’s lone at-large bid after Presbyterian won the conference tournament.

“I firmly believe when they came here late in that year and swept us, they took the at-large away from us. We had a better RPI and were tied in the standings,” McGuire said. “It was almost too big of a series for us — as a program, we weren’t there yet. We weren’t ready to handle it.”

Fast forward two years, to the final regular season series of the 2023 season. Campbell entered up two games in the race for the regular season title, needing just one victory to secure it. The Spartans battled, winning back-to-back games by 9-4 and 6-5 margins before dropping a 12-inning heartbreaker. It wasn’t the result Upstate wanted — nor was the narrow 3-2 loss to the Campbell in the Big South Tournament Championship Game — but it was a sign of how far they’ve come.

“When I took the job, Campbell was the cream of the crop and I knew if we were going to compete for championships, we would have to compete with them,” McGuire said. “They dominated the series for a few years, but last year was kind of a coming of age for us. We narrowed the gap from where we were — obviously we narrowed it just in time for us to go to the Coastal, but it was a coming of age for us as a program.”

With the Camels — used as a measuring stick of sorts — gone, the target now falls squarely on the Spartans back as the team to beat in the Big South. And if the roster McGuire has assembled for 2024 is any indication, they have that distinction for good reason.

“We’re much older and more experienced,” McGuire added. “We feel like we’ve been knocking on the door to get into a regional, and it’s time to knock the door down.”

USC Upstate's Grant Sherrod swings at a pitch
Easton Cullison (USC Upstate Athletics Photo)

Last year’s push to within two innings of earning the Big South’s auto-bid was impressive when you consider the bevy of injuries the Spartans faced. McGuire felt his lineup had a chance to be one of the best in the country last year, but attrition hit the ranks hard. By midseason, Upstate was without four of its Opening Day starters, including its three-hole and clean-up hitters.

Freshman All-American Noah Sullivan’s season was cut short in early March, creating a hole both in the staff and in the heart of the lineup. Starting catcher Koby Kropf played just four games. Left fielder Noah Rabon suffered a thumb injury sliding into third base and had his season end in early April. Shortstop Troy Hamilton missed the final 15 regular season games and another outfielder hit a foul ball off his shin in early March.

At one point, McGuire’s lineup card featured just three outfielders, requiring a second baseman by trade to spend a week in the outfield.

“We had to reinvent our club,” McGuire said. “We had capable backups, but we didn’t have the same thump. We stole more bags than we’d ever stolen — to be good offensively, you have to be able to score in a multitude of ways.”

Even with the injuries, the Spartans still averaged over seven runs a game, a top-90 mark in the country. Now, with a healthy roster, Upstate is expecting big things from a lineup featuring eight returnees.

“Our biggest strength is the depth,” McGuire said. “It has the chance to be the most offensive team I’ve ever coached. I think we’re physical, athletic, and have a chance to knock it around a little bit.”

It starts with a Big South First Team selection a year ago in first baseman Grant Sherrod. After limited playing time in 2022, Sherrod broke out in a big way. He posted a .335/.429/.625 slash line with 15 home runs and 66 RBIs as the team’s top hitter.

The middle infield is as reliable as you can ask for with the duo of Easton Cullison and Hamilton. Cullison posted a .302 line with 14 doubles and 25 stolen bases, while Hamilton hit .324 with 13 extra base hits in 46 games. Outfielders Kyle Henington (.275/.425/.373), Jace Rinehart (.310/.396/.535), and Dan Gernon (.283/.418/.492) return as well. Then there’s veteran catcher David Pereira (.261/.354/.388) and Kropf is back from injury.

Mix in two talented freshman in Vance Sheahan and Pierce Bouwman competing for the third base job and you can see why McGuire is so high on his offense heading in 2024. The lone qualified hitter that departed is Cole Caruso (.319, 15 2B), who transferred to Michigan.

“We basically got eight starters back, and eight proven guys that are a year older, a year wiser, more experienced, and just better,” he said. “I think that’s what excites me about our club.”

USC Upstate's Noah Sullivan throws a pitch.
Mathieu Curtis (USC Upstate Athletics Photo)

A big part of what kept the Spartans competitive through the bout of lineup injuries was how healthy their pitching staff was. They ranked in the Top 100 nationally in ERA (5.28) and were second in conference play (3.81). Upstate had a reliable weekend rotation highlighted by Reese Dutton, an All-Big South First Team selection.

Dutton moved on to Kansas in the offseason, but the return of Sullivan fills his spot in the weekend. He’ll feature alongside the duo of Henry Proger (All-Big South Honorable Mention) and Mathieu Curtis (All-Big South Freshman Team).

Sullivan, the Big South Freshman of the Year in 2022, has a career 2.40 ERA across 45 innings with a 42:18 K/BB ratio. The priority for the two-way Sullivan will be on the mound in 2024.

“He’ll be back taking the ball for us this spring and we’re excited for that,” McGuire said. “He’s a four-pitch mix and commands all four really well — it’s four above-average pitches and it’s pretty special command, which makes him a tough matchup.

Alongside him there’s Curtis, who was 7-2 with a 5.66 ERA as a true freshman and should take a big step forward. A towering 6-foot-5 righthander, Curtis added a slider this offseason. Proger’s debut season after transferring from junior college was quite the success. The southpaw turned in quality starts in seven of his 13 appearances and logged a 4.17 ERA.

Perhaps the most intriguing arm is Jake Cubbler, one of the conference’s top relievers last year. Cubbler logged six saves and a 1.51 ERA across 41.2 IP, fanning 37 and holding opponents to a .191 batting average against.

The righthanders most impressive outing came in the Big South title game as he made a spot start and hurled six innings of one-run ball. Cubbler’s value in the backend of the bullpen can’t be understated, but the Spartans did stretch him out should he be needed in the rotation.

Other key arms will include the likes of Trent Hodgdon, Jagger Jefferis (Eastern Michigan), Tommy Henninger (Ole Miss), and freshmen Darin Kuskie and Cooper Ellingworth.

“From a pitching standpoint, our approach is to fill it up and be competitive in the strike zone with good stuff,” McGuire said. “As a staff, our stuff has gotten a little bit better each and every year. I think we have as talented as a pitching staff as I’ve ever had.”

Featured Image via USC Upstate Athletics