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The University of South Carolina baseball team, in recent seasons, has seemingly become a fixture in Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
The Gamecocks are bidding for their third straight national crown after winning in 2010 and 2011.
Getting there is sweet, but it’s not a given.
When you’re the king of the hill, or in baseball terms, the man on the mound, it gets tougher each time. Along with that shining national championship trophy at the end of the season comes a major target on the team’s back for the following campaign.
Nobody has to tell the Gamecocks, who started their Southeastern Conference schedule with a 1-5 mark, including an 0-3 start after being swept by Kentucky.
“It didn’t start like we wanted, but we played. The team stayed the course and was resilient. We lost some close ones, but if you stay, sometimes it works out. We started to win our share in the league and had a chance to go to the postseason,” USC coach Ray Tanner said.
A third straight trip to the CWS seemed out of reach in March, but when May rolled around the Gamecocks had Omaha in their diamond sights.
There was still work to be done, but the chance to defend the national title was within USC’s grasp.
Much easier said than done, but once again achieved in Gamecock style.
USC’s baseball success is all about teamwork.
The Gamecocks lost all but one infielder from the 2011 national title team. First baseman Christian Walker was a key returnee, but junior college transfers and freshmen would ultimately have to deliver.
Tanner noted those incoming players had to earn their stripes.
In time they did. Tanner looked to seven freshman players at one point, or another to help answer the championship challenge and they responded.
“I think it was tough on these guys at the beginning because it is a talented recruiting class. They understand quickly that it’s not about you,” Tanner said.
A host of those newcomers played key roles Monday afternoon when USC punched its ticket to Omaha with a sweep of Oklahoma capped by a 5-1 win.
Junior LB Dantzler and freshman Tanner English contributed two hits apiece to spark the offense, while junior Chase Vergason laced a clutch two-run double. Freshmen Joey Pankake and Connor Bright also had a hit each. Pankake, Vergason and junior catcher Dante Rosenberg, subbing for injured freshman catcher Grayson Greiner, have provided key defense in the postseason.
A solid veteran cast help mold the young talent.
That included the likes of ace pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Price along with outfielders Adam Matthews and Evan Marzilli. Their continued stellar play and leadership have been invaluable to the Gamecocks’ run which now numbers a record 21 straight NCAA Tournament games.
The Gamecocks have also won 24 consecutive postseason games at home, including a 13-0 Carolina Stadium mark. The veteran players’ zany antics, such as the rally caps and dugout mannerisms, have a way of keeping it loose when the pressure is on. Whatever it takes.
The value of the 10th man – the Carolina fans is another vital component and Tanner is quick to note their undying support.
“We’re grateful for what you do,” said Tanner at a rousing Omaha send-off for the team Wednesday morning at Carolina Stadium. “We’re going to do our best to represent you with class, dignity and a competitive spirit. Thanks for your dedication.
“You inspire us to do great things between the lines,” Tanner said. “We’re going to Omaha and play our hearts out.”
The Gamecocks have their first shot Saturday night when they face top-rated Florida.
The talented Gators will be a challenge, but for the Gamecocks that’s a given, and their recent CWS history says don’t count them out.