South Carolina newcomers power latest run to CWS

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Ray Tanner wasn’t

sure when the year began if his team would have a chance to three-peat

at the College World Series.

And with good reason, the Gamecocks had lost so much.

The

past two CWS most valuable players — center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

and second baseman Scott Wingo — were gone, along with regulars at

third base, catcher, shortstop and left field. Players who accounted for

two thirds of the team’s RBIs in 2011 were not back this season.

“It was not going to be easy,” Tanner said.

Nonetheless, they’re back in Omaha.

The

Gamecocks have a shot at a third straight national title, a streak of

success only Southern Cal and its five consecutive crowns can claim in

college baseball. South Carolina returns to the CWS thanks to

significant contributions from its newcomers in the Gamecocks 5-1

victory over Oklahoma on Monday.

Freshman left fielder Tanner

English had two bunt singles and an RBI. New second baseman Chase

Vergason sealed the victory with a two-run double.

And they

haven’t been the only fresh faces to fuel this latest Gamecock run.

Freshman shortstop Joey Pankake and junior transfer third baseman LB

Dantzler helped South Carolina beat rival Clemson twice earlier this

month to reach the super regional round.

“We had a good group of

guys come in,” English said of his fellow first-year players. “We were

fortunate to have a great group of older guys to lead us and help show

us the way to play ball here.”

The newcomers had their struggles early.

The

Gamecocks (45-17) looked to be a free-fall when they were swept in a

series at Kentucky and lost two of three to Florida to start 1-5 in

Southeastern Conference play.

Pankake had 16 errors his first 40

games, nearly equaling the 20 shortstops Bobby Haney and Peter Mooney

made combined in 2010 and 2011.

The veteran pitching staff was also breaking in freshman catcher Grayson Greiner.

Tanner,

who leans heavily on experience in his 16 seasons at South Carolina,

had few cards to play and was even feeling the pressure at home as his

6-year-old daughter Maggie kept telling him they needed to go back to

Omaha because it’s so much fun there.

Gradually, the jittery

newcomers became steadier, sure handed and ready to hit in the clutch.

Pankake hasn’t made an error in 19 games, Greiner was selected by play

for the USA Baseball collegiate national team. And big hits were coming

from everywhere in the lineup instead of just near the top where CWS

veterans Evan Marzilli, Christian Walker and Adam Matthews were stacked.

“This

team stayed the course and was resilient,” Tanner said. “We lost some

close ones, but if you stay (around), sometimes it works out.”

It’s

worked out again for South Carolina in the NCAA tournament. The

Gamecocks ran their record streak of tournament wins — set at last

year’s College World Series — to 21 with their two victories over

Oklahoma, which was the last team to defeat South Carolina at the 2010

CWS.

Gamecocks star closer Matt Price called the first-time

players “sluggish” at first, something English chuckled about at the

postgame media session.

“But after they got a few games in, they started growing,” Price said.

English thinks it was the just the getting-to-know-you process between the veterans the rookies.

“It

took us a little while to get going and learn how to play with each

other,” he said. “We had to learn each other’s personality on and off

the field. Now it’s like we’re a family.”

A family with the perfect head of the household in Tanner.

The

longtime coach acknowledges he had made it hard for players in the past

by being too hands on and in their faces at the wrong moments. Tanner

doesn’t let everything rest these days, but concentrates on teaching and

instilling a feeling of fun among his players.

Last Friday

before the super regional, Tanner insisted he had just finished his most

fun practice of the season “because we’re still playing,” he said. “The

alternative is not good.”

Tanner has a knack these past few

seasons of making the absolute right calls to keep South Carolina

winning. He stayed with freshman Connor Bright at designated hitter on

Monday when the second game of the series resumed from rain problems the

day before. Bright delivered with a leadoff double as South Carolina

took the lead for good with a two-run seventh inning.

“We don’t know how he does it,” Price said.

The

Gamecocks open play at the TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday night against

the tournament’s top seed — and the team they beat for the title last

year — in SEC rival Florida. Tanner said his young players have grown

up a lot since fall practice because of their willingness to fit in and

do things the South Carolina way.

“You don’t just roll in here and have anything given to you,” Tanner said. “You have to earn it.”