OMAHA, Neb. — Every team has its own identity, especially those in the college ranks.
Players leave every year and new names, faces arrive to fill those voids. South Carolina’s back-to-back national championship teams were similar, but different. The 2012 version of the Gamecocks that have once again arrived in Omaha fits that same mantra. Similar, yet different.
Gone are what became household names – Jackie Bradley Jr., Scott Wingo, Adrian Morales. That’s what tends to happen when you win as many postseason games as South Carolina has the past three seasons. Everyone knows them.
But here they are. Coach Tanner’s team still has Michael Roth, Evan Marzilli, Christian Walker and Matt Price. It’s almost as if positions aren’t needed in front of their names. These names ring a bell.
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A team that lost six starters from its lineup is back in Omaha, having still not lost in the postseason. The NCAA tournament winning streak is now at an NCAA record 21 games.
It’s almost like these guys think it’s a single-elimination tournament. Heck, you can lose four times in the Division I Baseball tournament and still win a national championship. The Gamecocks refuse to acknowledge such rules.
“We don’t talk about it,” junior Evan Marzilli said. “We just go with the flow, one game at a time. We’re a team that takes everything in small steps. The streak is nice and everything but we have bigger things to worry about right now.”
His coach hasn’t said a word about it, either.
“I haven’t heard any of the guys bring it up unless one of the media members did so,” Tanner said. “When it is mentioned, you think, ‘Wow, that is kind of crazy, really,’ but when the game starts you don’t think about those things. You just go play. We’ve had some good fortune.”
So with the likes of former CWS Most Outstanding Player Scott Wingo gone, who has filled the void? Newcomers like freshman shortstop Joey Pankake and junior college transfer LB Dantzler – who has planted himself at third base – have done an exceptional job.
It’s the veterans that are still around from the past two trips to Omaha that have helped this team get here.
“Very simply: they are the reason we’re here,” Tanner said. “It’s because of the veteran guys that we do have that carried over from a year ago. They took the young guys under their wings and told them there’d be some ups and downs but they have to be ready to go into the SEC. I give all the credit in the world to those veteran guys for telling everyone to keep battling.”
It didn’t always seem like a return trip was in the making. The Gamecocks – like most teams in the SEC – had an up and down year. It included a midweek road loss at Francis Marion. That’s right, a DII program. In all fairness, FMU opened a new stadium that night and was ranked in the top 10. That loss on April 11 can be looked at as a turning point of sorts.
South Carolina reeled off 11 wins in its next 12 games.
“That as the point in the season where we started winning a bunch of games,” Marzilli said. “Kids started realizing what the plan was and what our team identity was. That was the biggest thing – we have a bunch of young guys that haven’t been through it before.”
“Throughout the season we’re going to have our ups and downs,” closer Matt Price said. “We’ve always found that way to string together wins. I think we’ve done that the last few weeks now, with the experience and young talent that we have – it’ll start to show.”
While many know Price as the shutdown closer for the Gamecocks, he wasn’t for the first few weeks of the season. The junior started the year in the rotation, but Tanner needed him back in the bullpen. His team was playing too many close games – 14-12 in one-run games and 8-0 in two-run games — this season.
“I thought Matt Price could be a really good starter for us in 2012 from what he showed early on in his few starts,” Tanner said. “But we didn’t have that presence at the end [of games]. We had a few good young arms down there but you’re talking about a guy that had tremendous presence out there. I sat Matt down and told him that he could have an effect on more games back in the bullpen. As a reliever, in most cases, you’re going to effect two or three games a week. We turned the page immediately and it’s helped us.”
All of that is behind this team. It’s now the postseason. As Tanner said, “We won enough games to qualify for the tournament.” Yes, they did. And they now just stand a few wins away from becoming just the second program to win three consecutive national titles. These Gamecocks would be right there with Rod Dedeaux’s Southern California clubs which won five in a row between 1970-74.
To do that, or to even start to accomplish that, South Carolina must get past the same Florida Gators team which it beat to win the 2011 national championship. And the same Florida Gators team which it lost to three of four times in 2012, including one meeting at the SEC Tournament less than a month ago.
“It’s always fun when we play Florida; they are a great team,” Marzilli said. “In order to be the best you have to beat the best. It’s going to be a tough road no matter who we play.”
It’s almost as if some forget this team has taken home the trophy the past two years. They aren’t the favorite to win it again. After all, Tanner knows why.
“We’re not a team that exudes tremendous talent,” Tanner said. “We’ve got some good players, of course, but we have to play really, really well. We have to play good defense and pitch well to stay in position to win close games because we’re not going to be explosive on the offensive said.”
But they win. And that’s the name of any game.