Could a Dynasty Be Brewing at South Carolina?
February 24th, 2012 By Patrick Green
Which curse is that again?
And what hole of mediocrity is the program trying to climb out of?
Will next year finally be the year?
Whoever walks with these notions and inquiries about the South Carolina Gamecocks certainly aren’t talking about Ray Tanner’s baseball squad.
Tanner’s program slugged the curse of the chicken out of the park a few years ago, and even before that, had mowed down mediocrity like a batter whiffing on a 93 mile per hour fastball.
While Gamecocks fans wait for Steve Spurrier’s recently successful football team to break through and apparently have all but given up on Darrin Horn’s basketball program, the folks in Columbia need no such patience with the boys on the diamond.
As the 2012 college baseball season gets underway, it’s Tanner’s squad that sits at the head table – not in the Palmetto State, not in the South Eastern Conference – but in the nation. South Carolina captured its second consecutive College World Series crown last year, sweeping SEC rival Florida in three games in Omaha.
The Gamecocks are only the sixth Division I program to notch back-to-back national championships in NCAA history. In 2010, South Carolina topped UCLA for its first ever CWS title.
So what does a program do that went 55-14 a year ago, nabbed its second consecutive national championship, and lost five of its top seven batters do for an encore? Rebuild, perhaps. Ride the wave of the past two titles for a few years, or decades, maybe.
After all, no team outside of Southern California (1970 – 1974) has won three consecutive titles or more in Division I baseball. As well, it wasn’t in South Carolina’s favor that it lost outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the star of 2010’s run, second baseman Scott Wingo, the standout of last year’s World Series, short stop Peter Mooney, and infielder Adrian Morales to the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft.
Between them, they accounted for 17 home runs, 135 RBI, and 168 runs. And off the mound, John Taylor punched his ticket for the Draft, taking with him an 8-1 record.
So it would make sense, for the average program, to temper its expectations, particularly after achieving the ultimate goal, twice, and having its roster decimated through graduation and early departures. But South Carolina’s not an average program and hasn’t been for quite some time.
What the Gamecocks have been for many years is consistent. It’s reflected in the fact that South Carolina has won 50 or more games in a season five times in the past 11 years; Tanner’s teams have won no less than 40 games in a season since the 2000 campaign. It shows up in the knowledge that the Gamecocks have made an appearance in the College World Series five times in the past decade, finishing runner-up in 2002.
And though Tanner has elevated the Gamecocks baseball program to unprecedented heights, it should be clarified that when he inherited it, he didn’t have far to climb. Under Bobby Richardson, South Carolina reached the NCAA tournament three times, finishing runner-up in the College World Series in 1975.
June Raines took over for Richardson in 1977 and continued the Gamecocks high level of play. South Carolina finished runner-up again in 1977, and in Raines’ 19 years at the helm, advanced to the CWS three times, making the NCAA tournament 11 times. By the time he was finished in 1996, Raines had accumulated 763 victories, most all-time in the program.
So it’s unlikely then, that South Carolina would rest off past success, departures withstanding.
Instead, the SEC defending champs come back reloaded and eyeing a three-peat. Baseball America pegged the Gamecocks as the third-ranked team in the country coming into this season.
“We have expectations in this program,” Tanner said. “Our players have it, fans have it and we are just going to do the best we can. I have never been one to talk about the future and setting goals and objectives, all of those things. We are just trying to have a good practice and get better each time out there.”
Tanner’s group wasted little time defending its early status, opening the season with a 3-0 mark after sweeping Virginia Military Institute this past weekend. With struggling bats in the opening contests, they won 2-1 and 3-2, respectively, before unloading in the backend of a doubleheader last Saturday, knocking VMI off 13-1.
A lot even early on is familiar.
The Gamecocks have won 14 consecutive season openers, for one. Secondly, for as much as the defending national champions lost in man power, they likely more than make up for in returning and new faces. Back is South Carolina’s leading hitter from a year ago in Christian Walker, who paced the team with a .358 batting average, 10 home runs, and 62 RBI.
The junior infielder, who was a third-team Baseball America All-American last year, has picked up where he left off, going 4-for-11 against VMI with two RBI. Another power player from Tanner’s championship team also got off to a sound start. Junior Evan Marzilli, who played in the shadows a year ago while putting up solid numbers, will look to play a more prominent role this year for Tanner. The junior went 6-for-12 against the Keydets.
Senior outfielder Adam Matthews chose to return to Columbia even after being drafted in the 23rd round by Baltimore. Matthews started 29 games a year ago and batted .264, highlighting his junior season by scoring the winning run a 3-2 victory in 13 innings over Virginia in the CWS.
And opponents, who may be relieved to see the likes of Bradley, Jr. and Wingo cleaning out their lockers, might not have long to relish. Freshmen Kyle Martin, Tanner English, and Grayson Greiner bring big bats with them and will earn ample opportunity early to create their own legacies. Martin, who picked up two starts against VMI at first base, went 4-for-8 and scored twice. English started in centerfield, and Greiner at catcher, connecting on 4-of-10 attempts at bat.
“We need for those guys to play well immediately,” Tanner added. “These guys are filling in important shoes for us. I don’t think I’ve ever started four freshmen. That can be dangerous. They’re good players, but they don’t have a lot of experience.”
Likely the most prominent new face, however, does have collegiate experience, albeit on the junior college level. Junior transfer LB Dantzler starred for two seasons at State College of Florida, earning honorable mention All-American honors last season. The utility infielder went 4-for-11 during the season opening series against VMI, hitting South Carolina’s first home run of the season and driving in five runs.
Dantler already has the attention of his teammates and coaches.
“I think our lineup is as strong as it’s been,” Walker stated. “LB and I have been joking around about being one of the most feared 3-4 combos in the country. Hopefully it’s foreshadowing for the season.”
For Tanner, he’s most pleased with what he didn’t expect from Dantzler.
“He sort of had that tag that he’s going to hit,” the Gamecocks coach noted. “He’s a better defender than maybe I anticipated coming in. I like what he brings.”
Even with a healthy amount of veterans with championship experience in the lineup and a promising youth movement, South Carolina’s saving grace still might be in the bullpen. For starters, Michael Roth, Colby Holmes, Matt Price, and Forrest Koumas return to anchor Tanner’s pitching core. Roth went 14-3 last year, with 112 strikeouts and a picturesque 1.06 ERA. Amongst them, they accounted for 34 of the Gamecocks 55 wins.
“We want to go out there and win, and I don’t get involved in all the hoopla about hype or whatever,” said Roth. “I just come out here and try to give the team a chance to win.”
Roth might need to get accustomed to the hoopla, as the bullpen appears stronger this season than a year ago, when it was among the nation’s best. Junior Tyler Webb, who went 3-1 last season, will likely see more action this season, as will freshman Evan Beale. And as always, the Gamecocks will rely on depth to wear down opposing batters. Against the Keydets, 11 pitchers saw action and allowed only 11 hits through three contests.
“Offensively, we’ve got to get a lot better,” Tanner mentioned. “But I like our pitching staff a little bit. We’ve got a chance going forward to do a good job on the mound.”
Up next for South Carolina is a three-game home series with Elon starting Friday. The Gamecocks have a very decided advantage in that 14 of its first 16 games will be in the friendly confines of Columbia.
No doubt though Tanner’s team will face a tough task en route to three-peating. They have to first make it through what many consider to be the premier baseball conference in the nation. The SEC owns the last three national champions (LSU captured the CWS in 2009). Florida, in fact, the team South Carolina knocked off in the CWS finale, is currently ranked No.1 in the country. They will meet March 22-24 in Columbia for a three-game series.
“There’s a lot of parity in college baseball,” Tanner qualified. “Anybody can beat anybody.”
While that may be true, for the past two years, no one’s been able to beat South Carolina when it mattered most. Listening to Tanner, one would think the Gamecocks were continuously playing catch up. But by all apparent standards, it appears the only team South Carolina is chasing is itself.
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