(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
There was definitely something different in the air on the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia, S.C., this fall, and it really didn’t have a lot to do with the lofty expectations foisted upon Coach Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks’ football team.
This rarified-air feeling came about thanks to the accomplishments of Coach Ray Tanner and his South Carolina baseball program. When the squad’s 2010 fall practice session commenced in September, the Gamecocks could identify themselves in a way they had never before been able to do in the program’s proud history: “Defending National Champions.”
“I guess it was a little bit of a different feeling,” Tanner said with a chuckle. “Normally you lose your last game of the season and we won our last game (and) there’s only one team that ends up in that position.
“So it was a little bit different but certainly it was good. My entire mission the entire fall was ‘Hey, it’s going to be like any fall, but we’re going to try to move forward with a sense of accomplishment and celebration and not have pressure to try to get back in that position.”
The 2010 season certainly was magical for South Carolina, which made its 11th straight NCAA Regional appearance and fourth College World Series berth since 2000 under Tanner. He became the Carolina head coach in 1997 and also led the Gamecocks to a regional berth in 1998.
They finished the 2010 season with a 54-16 record and won the Southeast Conference Eastern Division title with a 21-9 mark, four games ahead of second-place Vanderbilt.
“One of the traits that helped us go deep into the playoffs last year was a sense of perspective,” Tanner said. “You’ve got to have fun playing this game, you can’t play with tremendous anxiety and tension, and it was a group that was really good at that. It’s easy to talk about (but) it’s hard to do. This group was real special from that standpoint.”
It was about midway through the SEC portion of their 2010 schedule when the Gamecocks started winning more close games than they were losing. That gave them a real head of steam heading into the regionals, which they hosted, and they went on to beat Coastal Carolina in the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Super Regional.
Then came the time to travel to Omaha’s historic Rosenblatt Stadium for the final time. USC lost its first game at the CWS to Oklahoma, but rallied to beat Arizona State, 11-4; Oklahoma in a rematch, 3-2 in 12 innings; Clemson, 5-1 in the semifinals; and finally UCLA, 7-1 and 2-1 in 11 innings, in the best-of-3 championship series. South Carolina was the first team ever to win six consecutive games on its way to a national championship.
“It still has to all fall in place,” Tanner said. “Even going to Omaha – the eight teams that were there, I’m not sure we’re in the top three or four teams if you just evaluated it by talent. It just all worked out. “There were other teams there that could have won it just as easily as we did. We just happened to play really well at a critical time.”
South Carolina had seven players taken in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft, including top starting pitchers Sam Dyson and Blake Cooper. Dyson, a right-hander, was 13-2 with a 2.36 ERA last season and was selected – and signed by – the Toronto Blue Jays in the Draft’s 4th-round.
In addition, Tanner had eight players from his 2010 recruiting class get drafted, and three of them signed professionally. The other five are on campus in Columbia.
The Gamecocks return a wealth of talent from the 2010 CWS team, including five everyday position players and eight pitchers who made at least 17 appearances during the 54-16 campaign.
“I’ve got a lot of guys back,” Tanner said. “Normally when you have a team that goes pretty deep (into the NCAA tournament) you lose a lot of guys, but I’ve got some returners so I’m excited about that.”
The top returnees include junior outfielder Jackie Bradley, who hit .368 with 13 home runs, 60 RBIs and 56 runs scored. Sophomore corner infielder Christian Walker (.327, 9 HRs, 51 RBIs) and junior outfielder Adam Matthews (.307, 7 HRs, 31 RBIs) are also back.
The top returning pitchers include junior left-hander Michael Roth (2-1, 1.34 ERA, 37 appearances), senior tight-hander Jose Mata (7-1, 2.40 ERA, 33 appearances) and sophomore right-hander Matt Price (5-1, 2.26 ERA, 10 saves).
Bradley is an NCBWA 2011 Preseason All-America first team selection and Perfect Game projects him as the No. 7 pick overall in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft. Price is a second team Preseason All-America pick.
All of those players were actively involved in Perfect Game events while in high school. Bradley participated in nine PG events himself while a student at Prince George (Va.) High School.
Tanner was previously an assistant coach and head coach at North Carolina State before coming to South Carolina in time for the 1997 season.
Success isn’t foreign to the Gamecocks in Tanner’s 14 seasons in Columbia. There have been eight Super Regional appearances too with the four CWS appearances since 2000, and the 2002 team finished 57-18 and CWS national runner-up. Tanner’s record at USC is 634-282 (.692).
The reasons for the sustained success are many, and Tanner isn’t afraid to innumerate them.
“(There are) many traits and I’ll start with tradition,” he said. “We have great tradition here in baseball … and baseball is always important on this campus. The games are well-attended, we have great fans, it’s a college town – we don’t have a lot of interference from professional sports. It’s all about the University of South Carolina and baseball was traditionally a very good program.”
Tanner said he doesn’t really know if the high school players he recruits can appreciate the “tradition” aspect of his program as much as former players and long-time fans do, but he thinks everyone – even 17- and 18-year-olds – can appreciate winning on a regular basis.
“The fact that ‘Hey, we’ve been pretty good for years and we’ll continue to be good and we’d like to have you as part of the journey,’” Tanner said. “But I think the (university’s) commitment (to the program) is visible – the nice stadium, the facilities, the conference that you play in – I think that all those things are important, but tradition does play a role.
“I’m proud, certainly, of the players and the coaches that I’ve had, and I always feel that they’re among the best,” he continued, “but it takes a commitment from the administration, that athletics director, the president – I think all of those things are important for you to be in position to have a really, really good program.”
Tanner believes the level of competition South Carolina plays every season appeals to potential recruits. Playing in the SEC, the Gamecocks face the likes of Vanderbilt, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss. Their non-conference schedule could include in any given season in-state rivals Coastal Carolina, College of Charleston, Clemson and The Citadel.
“There are so many good teams in our conference and in our state,” Tanner said. “It’s a tremendous challenge to win enough to get to the postseason. It’s a simple approach, and on that if you can accomplish, then you regroup and you say, ‘Hey, let’s go as deep as we can here.”
“Defending National Champions” certainly has a nice a ring to it and it’s a title Tanner and his Gamecocks hope to be wearing again in the summer of 2011. The Gamecocks know what it takes: perseverance, the ability to come up big on big stages and, of course a little bit of luck.
“I don’t think it’s going to be any different than it has been,” Tanner said. “We’re honored to be the national champions … but again, this program and one of the things I’ve preached is all about perspective. We play a game that will humble you. There has to be tremendous perspective – you can’t be too high and you can’t be too low.
“Going into the 2011 season, what’s going to be different? From an approach standpoint, not much. We’re going to try to put a good team on the field and we’re going to try to win enough games to get to the postseason. That’s the key. You get to the postseason and anything can happen.”
What follows is a list of some of the current players on South Carolina’s tentative 2011 roster who either participated in Perfect Game events or created PG Profiles while they were in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his complete Perfect Game Profile:
DeSean Anderson – PG Aflac Showcase/PG WWBA
Nolan Belcher – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Jackie Bradley – PG National Pre-Draft/PG WWBA
Ethan Carter – Aflac AA Classic/PG National/PG Aflac/PG WWBA
Adam Matthews – PG WWBA
Peter Mooney – PG WWBA
Adrian Morales – PG National Underclass/PG BCS
Steven Neff – PG WWBA
Matt Price – PG WWBA
Michael Roth – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Patrick Sullivan – PG WWBA
Drake Thomason – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Christian Walker – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Tyler Webb – PG WWBA
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