After losing seven out of its first 10 SEC games around the midway point of the season, the South Carolina baseball team looked like it might not get an opportunity to make the annual visit to its summer home.
Two months later, the Gamecocks have booked their trip.
With a 5-1 victory Monday afternoon at Carolina Stadium, USC swept past Oklahoma in the NCAA Super Regional in two games to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the third consecutive season.
Im kind of at a loss for words, USC coach Ray Tanner said. To be able to get a chance to continue to play after the way we started, you start reflecting throughout the season. As I told the guys in the huddle at the end, it didnt 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.
The Gamecocks (45-17) made it work out by getting hot at the right time again. After sweeping through the five regional and Super Regional games at Carolina Stadium, the two-time defending national champions upped their record NCAA tournament winning streak to 21 games dating back to the second game of the 2010 CWS.
When you look at the list of teams that weve faced over the past couple of years and you look at that record, if you had told me that we would do that, I would never have guessed it, junior center fielder Evan Marzilli said. I dont even know what to say about it. We just have to keep it going.
South Carolina will attempt to keep it going against its SEC rival Florida (47-18) Saturday at 9 p.m. in its opening game at TD Ameritrade Park. The Gamecocks defeated the Gators in the CWS championship series last season, but Florida has won three of four meetings this year.
It took South Carolina two days to win the clinching game over the Sooners (42-25), who also were knocked out of the 2010 CWS by the Gamecocks, after rain suspended play Sunday night with the game in a scoreless tie after 5½ innings.
But USC came out Monday and scored five runs against Oklahoma reliever Steven Okert (9-8) two in the seventh and three in the eighth to put away the Sooners, who mustered their only run of the series in the seventh inning.
The two-run seventh was keyed by an Oklahoma throwing error on a sacrifice bunt, and the three-run eighth was highlighted by Tanner Englishs perfect two-out RBI bunt single and Chase Vergasons ensuing two-run double.
The USC bullpen did the rest.
Junior left-hander Tyler Webb (6-1) pitched a scoreless inning, and closer Matt Price tossed three scoreless frames to collect his 11th save. Price, who began this season in the starting rotation, finished the game like he did in two national championship clinchers.
I just did whats best for the team, Price said. Once Coach (Tanner) talked to me about going back to the pen, I just went out there. It wasnt a major transition for me to go back from starting to closing because the past two years Ive done it. These situations, I dont try to fold. I just thrive in these situations.
The teams were able to get the game finished without any more weather issues. Once the Gamecocks took charge in the late innings, they werent about to let rain or the Sooners stop them from reaching their favorite destination.
For veteran players such as Marzilli, Price, junior first baseman Christian Walker, senior outfielder Adam Matthews and senior pitcher Michael Roth who won the opener against Oklahoma they have come to view Omaha as a viable goal. But that didnt mean they werent a little stunned by their own accomplishment.
That is sort of surreal. I cant even explain it. Its a great group of guys, Walker said. We had some rough patches. These guys handled them. This is some great momentum weve got, and that was an awesome team (Oklahoma) we had to play. But this is just the beginning.
Marzilli realizes there are no sure things, but he also believed this team could keep the Omaha run alive.
You never know, but we had the talent to do it. We knew that from the beginning. It was just a matter of putting it together, he said.
Tanner called the veteran performers the nucleus of the team and a major factor in the three straight trips to the CWS and two national titles. He cited their talent, maturity, work ethic and leadership.
Their character is a plus off the field. Theyre just great guys, Tanner said. Theyve just been a joy, no doubt about it. And theyre good baseball players. It just doesnt get much better than that. They get it. They understand it. They did early on when they were freshmen. It didnt take them long to understand what they were supposed to do and how they were supposed to act and how they were supposed to play.
Matthews, who got the three-run rally in the eighth started with a single, now wants the younger players to know that theres no reason the winning has to end.
Its not over. The seasons not over. We still have work to do, Matthews said. Its been tremendous to sit back and watch our young guys improve over the course of the year. Hopefully, well make a good run out in Omaha.
The newcomers have picked up on the winning vibe the veterans have given off all season. LB Danztler, the junior college transfer at third base, also had a single in the eighth-inning rally. But he always believed.
Evan kept saying, Anythings possible. Just keep battling. I talked to him after the game, and he said, I told you. I cant really describe the feeling right now, Dantzler said. This is why you come here. But its still not easy to make it to Omaha, no matter what youve done in the past. There are only eight teams still playing, and were fortunate enough to be one of them.
The Gamecocks, who also own a 24-game home winning streak in the NCAA tournament dating back to 2002, will travel to their second home Wednesday to get ready for Thursdays opening ceremony.
Matthews looks forward to some fond memories once this run is complete.
One day in the weeks to come and the years to come, Im going to sit back and say, Man, we went to Omaha three times in my career. Its just been unbelievable. Im almost speechless, he said.