Friday, June 17, 2011

Ten Nights In Omaha: A Fan's Take On An Improbable Run To A National Title

On the eve of yet another forthcoming College World Series, I have a sudden impulse to give my own firsthand account about the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks and the week and a half long journey that culminated in the school's first major athletic title. But first, some context.

As stated on here and my Twitter account, I am a South Carolinian, born and bred. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand up when my home state is mentioned in a positive light. By extension, my loyalty to the University of South Carolina is as much a part of me as are my green eyes and wavy, sandy brown hair. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I've had memories. I've also donned the garnet and black associated with the school, too. And with the latter, those colors have long held an ignominious distinction with their athletic program.

Leading up to the 2010 College World Series, the South Carolina Gamecocks (as a whole) were always the bridesmaid, but never the bride.

In football, they've only won one conference title: the ACC in 1969. By the way, their football program dates back to 1892. It took them until 1995 to win their first bowl game, and they once lost 23 consecutive games between the 1998 and 1999 seasons. True, they did produce a Heisman trophy winner in running back George Rogers in 1980. And yeah, things are looking better heading into this fall, but Gamecock football has historically trended downward as the year neared its end.

In men's basketball, their shining moments spanned one decade from the late '60s to the mid '70s. In that time, Frank McGuire coached the Gamecocks to a 205-65 regular season record and three consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances in the NCAA Tournament from 1971 to 1973. Since then, they've fallen off the map, but they regained relevancy in recent memory, including back-to-back NIT titles in 2004 and 2005. Then again, who cares about the NIT? Just the bridesmaid.

In baseball, however, they've had their biggest chances to lay claim to a national title but failed to capitalize. The Gamecocks first shot came in 1975, their first appearance in the College World Series, where they lost in the championship game to the Texas Longhorns. South Carolina was coached by native son and former New York Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson, who turned the program around practically overnight from his first year coaching in 1970. After the 1976 season, Richardson left and June Raines took the reins to steer the Gamecocks into national prominence. They went back to the College World Series in 1977, where again they lost in the championship game, this time to the Arizona State Sun Devils. They made it back to Omaha, Nebraska – the site of the College World Series – thrice in the 1980s and nearly every year in that decade for the NCAA Tournament preceding the College World Series. In 1997, Ray Tanner became the new head coach, and the baseball program really took off from there. With the exception of two, the Gamecocks reached the NCAA Tournament every year Tanner has led the team. In their first trip back to the College World Series with Tanner in 2002, the Gamecocks once again played in the championship game, where again they lost to Texas. The following year, the final round became a best-of-three series that stands today. South Carolina was eliminated after three games in 2003 and fell one victory short of having a championship rematch with the Longhorns in 2004, and that was the last time they made it to the College World Series until last year.

Somehow, someway, in spite of all the bad luck Gamecock baseball suffered when the lights shone brightest, 2010 just felt different.

It started with Regional play, which they hosted in Columbia as a #1 seed by virtue of finishing third overall in the tough-as-nails SEC. Their pool consisted of the Bucknell Bison, Virginia Tech Hokies, and in-state rival Citadel Bulldogs. They opened with the Bison, and things weren't looking good. They trailed the number four seed 5-1 in the home half of the sixth inning, but they managed to cut the deficit to one run heading to the bottom of the eighth. Down to their last few outs, the Gamecocks delivered a furious rally, scoring five runs in that eighth inning and never looking back to secure the victory. From there, South Carolina faced The Citadel, who earlier beat Virginia Tech to face the winner of the Carolina-Bucknell match up. Again, the Gamecocks needed to rally in order to stay alive. And trailing 4-2 at one point, they did so, scoring five runs in the seventh and two runs in the ninth to handedly beat the Bulldogs 9-4. With a 2-0 record in Regional play, South Carolina needed just one more victory to reach the Super Regionals. They wasted no time, clobbering Virginia Tech 10-2 to sweep their bracket and move one step closer to Omaha.

South Carolina was paired up with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers in the Myrtle Beach Super Regional. (By the way, a chanticleer is a general term for a rooster. A gamecock is a rooster bred for cockfighting.) Coastal Carolina was the number four national seed, and they were looking to make it to the College World Series for the first time in their program's history. But the Gamecocks had been here before, and they knew what it was going to take to advance. In Game 1 in the best-of-three series, the Gamecocks scored four quick runs and held off the Chanticleers 4-3. Game 2 featured a lot more scoring, and it looked like Coastal Carolina was going to squeak by with a close win as well. Until freshman first baseman Christian Walker stepped to the plate with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth. On a 1-2 pitch, Walker absolutely crushed it out of the park in left field. That blast put the Gamecocks up 10-9 late in the game, and it proved demoralizing to the Chanticleers, who couldn't answer back in the ninth as South Carolina advanced to their ninth College World Series.

Making it all the way to Omaha is every player's, every coach's, and every team's dream from the moment the regular season begins. It is the pinnacle for all things baseball in the NCAA. The eight teams who make it come from all corners of the U.S., each taking a different path, literally and figuratively. For the South Carolina Gamecocks, theirs was a journey that was part redemption, part revenge, and all around resiliency.

As it was since 1988, the eight teams that made it to the College World Series – Arizona State, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma, South Carolina, TCU, and UCLA – were divided up in two four-team brackets. The Gamecocks were paired up with the number one national seeded Arizona State Sun Devils, the Oklahoma Sooners, and the Clemson Tigers, their hated in-state rival.

In their first game, South Carolina would play Oklahoma. However, severe rain threatened to cancel this contest. It never did, but more than six hours worth of rain delays kept this game going longer than need be. It was scheduled to start at 1 pm EST, but it didn't finish until for another nine plus hours, ultimately resulting in a tight 4-3 victory for the Sooners. I spent the whole day glued to my TV, and to see the Gamecocks lose a close ball game the way they did made me sleep a little less easily that night. By the time the game was through, the other match-up in their bracket – Arizona State vs. Clemson – was rescheduled for 10 am the next day. Clemson won that game, and it meant the Gamecocks were to play the Sun Devils in the elimination bracket.

South Carolina nor Arizona State could have any room for error. Another loss would knock either team out of the College World Series; for South Carolina, this was their reality every year prior. They knew each game from here on out was win-or-go-home, and they jumped at the opportunity to shift all the pressure on the Sun Devils. They wouldn't wait long. It was the second inning, and the Gamecocks' bats came alive, plating eight runs to give them an 8-0 cushion. Every time I went to update the score to my father working outside that day, it seemed like the Gamecocks scored another run or two to just rub it in Arizona State's face. I moved a lot during that inning. They added two more runs an inning later to make the score 10-0. By then, the game was out of reach. Arizona State scored a pair of runs in two separate innings to make it close, but the final score said otherwise. Gamecocks 11, Sun Devils 4.

Still in the elimination bracket, the Gamecocks would next face the loser of the Oklahoma-Clemson match-up. Once again, the Tigers won, and it also meant South Carolina would have a rematch with the team that gave them a heartbreaking loss in the opening game. The Sooners struck first, scoring one run in the second inning. Through seven and a half innings, the score remained 1-0 in favor of Oklahoma. However, the Gamecocks tied it up at one a piece in the bottom of the eighth. It remained so through nine innings, and extras were necessary to determine who would live to play another day. In the top of the twelfth inning, the Sooners delivered a booming home run that appeared to deflate all the momentum South Carolina had. I even figured my slightly dirty Gamecock hat I bought the previous summer had finally worn out its magic. But they had a few more tricks up their sleeve. Down to their final strike and facing elimination, sophomore center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. laced a single past the diving efforts of the first baseman to score junior utility man Robert Beary from second base and tie the game at two all. A few batters later, senior catcher Brady Thomas picked the right time to have his first hit in the game, a ground ball up the middle into center field. Bradley Jr. raced his way to home plate, but a throw was never attempted. Gamecocks 3, Sooners 2.

With their victory over Oklahoma, South Carolina would now face Clemson for the right to play in the College World Series final. Because they won their way out past the elimination round, all the Tigers needed to do was win one game to play for their first national title. It's a bitter pill to swallow for any Gamecock fan (have I mentioned I don't like Clemson?), but the task at hand was not impossible. If anything, it felt like history was worth repeating itself. Back in 2002, both teams were in the exact same position. Clemson was one victory away from the championship game, but they lost both games they had to give to South Carolina in blowout fashion. This time around, the games wouldn't be as one-sided, but they were just as dramatic.

In the first game, South Carolina sent junior relief pitcher Michael Roth to the mound for his first start in over a year. It was such an obscure move, I seriously thought the Gamecocks were gonna bounce out of the tournament to a hot as Hell Clemson Tiger team. Then again, they must've known something I didn't, because Roth ended up throwing a gem of a pitching performance: a complete game, three-hit shutout that just stymied Clemson's offense. Gamecocks 5, Tigers 1.

In the winner-take-all game for a shot at the national title, this was a see-saw battle with the makings of an instant classic. Both South Carolina and Clemson alternated the scoring by plating one run an inning spread out over six and a half innings. The score was 2-2 heading into the home half of the seventh with the Gamecocks due to bat. Christian Walker, who earlier in the game hit a home run to give South Carolina a slim 2-1 lead, knocked a base hit into left center field and brought freshman outfielder Evan Marzilli in with the go-ahead run. The next batter, junior third baseman Adrian Morales, shot the ball past the first baseman to score Jackie Bradley Jr. from second base, and give South Carolina a 4-2 lead. But the Tigers would not go quietly in that good night. Clemson scored a run in the top of the eighth inning to keep it a one run game with freshman closer Matt Price on the mound for the Gamecocks. But Clemson couldn't overcome the deficit. Their best chance came with two outs in the top of the ninth with a runner on first. On the first pitch he saw, the Clemson batter hit a hard ground ball with its eyes toward right field, but Walker dove on the ball and made the catch. He easily made the final out by stepping on first base, and the Gamecocks assured themselves a spot in the College World Series final for the fourth time in their school's history and, in so doing, humbled their hated in-state rival once again. Gamecocks 4, Tigers 3.

South Carolina would face the UCLA Bruins in the championship round, and the connections between the two schools plus the ones I personally have made this an intriguing series for me to watch.

For starters, neither team had won a national title in college baseball. By now, I told you about the Gamecocks' plight in winning that elusive first major title, but the Bruins had a different (mis)fortune. In spite of winning a record 106 national athletic titles, none were in baseball. Not only that, but in two previous trips to Omaha, UCLA didn't even win a game, much less the whole series. Both of the team's styles of play were strikingly similar, too. They relied on power pitching and determined defense to keep their opposition in check. For South Carolina, their reliable starters included senior staff ace Blake Cooper, junior Sam Dyson, freshman Tyler Webb, and even the surprising diamond in the rough known as Michael Roth. For UCLA, they only needed two big arms to get them through: sophomores Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. Cole, who was a first-round draft pick by the New York Yankees in 2008, came back to UCLA for this very purpose of winning the College World Series. Bauer, meanwhile, recorded the most strikeouts (165) by a single pitcher in the nation in an unorthodox fashion à la Tim Lincecum. (Cole and Bauer were eventually drafted first and third, respectively, in the 2011 MLB Draft.)

As for me, I took a heightened interest not only because of South Carolina, but also because I knew Los Angeles pretty well. For the longest time, I used to live in Bakersfield, California, which is roughly 100 miles north of L.A. In high school, I had several friends who eventually matriculated to UCLA, including one who's a National Merit Scholar. I don't think they care about college baseball, or even baseball in general, but their enrollment amplified a West vs. East showdown I hadn't been excited about since the Orlando Magic lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals the previous summer. I also like to point out that L.A. is very, very, very smug. I have never seen a city that's so magnificent, yet equally decadent. If the Gamecocks were to beat the Bruins fair and square, I thought that would shut everybody up, especially the announcers at ESPN, over how Los Angeles is infinitely superior to the competition, including a group of young men from Columbia, South Carolina.

In the first game, South Carolina sent Cooper to the mound, and UCLA started Cole. I'm not saying I didn't have faith in the Gamecocks' ace to keep the Bruins from scoring, but I felt the Gamecocks needed to score early and often for two reasons. One, it would take a lot of pressure off South Carolina in the early going and, two, that would subsequently boost Cooper's confidence to limit the potent Bruin offense. Well, the Gamecocks delivered, and they even got some help from the Bruins. In the first inning, a check swing by Thomas fell for a bloop single in left field and scored Bradley Jr. from second, putting the Gamecocks up 1-0. Later, a ground ball hit by Morales went through the legs of UCLA's second baseman, and Walker touched home to make the score 2-0. In the second inning, junior second baseman Scott Wingo led off with a triple and scored on Marzilli's single into right field to make it 3-0. Fielding miscues by UCLA's first baseman and Cole proved dearly in the third inning, as senior shortstop Bobby Haney delivered a two out, two RBI single into right field, scoring Morales and Thomas to give South Carolina a 5-0 advantage. As for Cooper, that would be more than enough run support. Over eight and a third innings pitched, he scattered three hits and recorded ten strikeouts, both of which set and tied (respectively) a College World Series record. By the time he was pulled in the bottom of the ninth, the Gamecocks led 7-1, and they would hold on to win by the score. For the first time in Omaha, South Carolina had a game to give in the tournament, but they still needed one more victory to clinch the championship.

The second game featured Roth again pitching for the Gamecocks up against another Bruin ace in Rob Rasmussen. Both pitchers continued their dominance in Omaha, letting neither team score a run through four innings. South Carolina had the best chance to score with the bases loaded in the bottom of the second, but Marzilli lined out to center field to end the inning. UCLA broke the scoreless streak with some timely hitting in the top of the fifth, which led to a run and a 1-0 Bruins lead. In the bottom of the eighth with no time to lose, South Carolina sent Thomas to pinch-hit and he delivered a single. Beary came in to pinch run for him, and he ultimately scored from second base when a ground ball hit by Haney was misplayed by UCLA's first and second baseman, tying the game at one a piece. In the top of the ninth, the Bruins had the bases loaded with two outs, needing a clutch hit to potentially push the championship round to its three game limit. However, Price was on the mound for South Carolina, and he struck out the Bruins' batter on three pitches to end the threat.

When extra innings were necessary, that's when I started feeling mixed emotions. Actually, I felt nauseous above all else, and I couldn't bear to watch UCLA bat because I didn't want to possibly see them seize the lead, tie up the series, and leave a sour taste in my mouth by night's end, literally and figuratively. I ended up going to my kitchen to sip on a cup of ginger ale and snack on some trail mix. I did this for the top of the tenth and eleventh innings. As I did this, I also thought of the state of South Carolina athletics.

I've already laid out how the major men's athletic programs fell short of a significant national championship year in and year out. What I didn't mention was that the Gamecocks did win a major national title. It came in 2002 for women's track and field. Now, no offense to that particular team, but for South Carolina to have won just one championship in its history, and in women's track and field of all sports, was depressing.

For the longest time, Gamecock fans blamed this lack of overarching success on the Chicken Curse. This curse was imposed by Ben Tillman, a former South Carolina Senator who was enraged that the state's Legislature didn't want a particular institution geared towards farmers to exist. That institution would become Clemson University. Tillman declared the University of South Carolina doomed by striking a pitchfork into it's soil, and the rest is history. Until the night of June 29, 2010.

Oh, did I also mention that this particular College World Series would be the last one held at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, its home since 1950? I didn't? Well, there you go. With all that said, to say this series was important for South Carolina to win is a huge understatement. It was vital, necessary, and even fitting could the Gamecocks pull it out.

I will remember the bottom of the eleventh inning for as long as I'll live. I know because I watched it in it's entirety as it happened in real time. The lead-off man was Wingo, and he showed bunt throughout the whole at-bat. He managed to squeeze a bases loaded walk out of it, and up stepped Marzilli. On the first pitch to Marzilli, the ball scooted past the catcher, and Wingo advanced to second on the passed ball. Eventually, Marzilli laid a beautiful bunt in between the pitching mound and third base. It travelled far enough, yet slow enough, to allow Wingo to move to third and even give Marzilli a chance to get an infield single. Somehow, he's called out by half a step and there's one out on the board. But more importantly, the championship-winning run was just ninety feet away, and junior right fielder Whit Merrifield was up at the plate. Merrifield was hitless in that game, and in the on-deck circle was Bradley Jr., who had a 22-game hit streak on the line (he was 0-5 to that point). Instead of pitching around Merrifield to set up a potential inning-ending double play with Bradley Jr., the Bruins decided to attack the strike zone. Just in case, UCLA also sent out Bauer, the potential Game 3 starter, to warm up in the bullpen. On the field, the first two pitches to Merrifield were low and away. Before the third was thrown, he called time to collect his thoughts. It's also time to collect mine, as well, and all I could think at that moment was, "Get a hit, Whit!" The next pitch Merrifield saw was located similar to the previous two. He swung at the 2-0 offering, and it's a line drive that fell in for a single just in front of the Bruins' right fielder. Merrifield raised his arms in jubilation, Wingo touched home plate screaming at the top of his lungs, and every Gamecock player and fan (hopefully) joined in the celebration.

As Gamecock sports radio announcer Andy Demetra said moments after Merrifield's clutch hit, "THE GAMECOCKS ARE THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONS OF COLLEGE BASEBALL!!" Such words have never sounded sweeter to my ears. Even nearly a year later as I type this, I still flash a wide smile when I hear that statement.

National. Champions. Wow.

Of course, I'm watching the game on ESPN, so I get Mike Patrick's deadpan version of South Carolina finally winning their long-awaited first major athletic title. I always figured that if the Gamecocks were to do so, it would come in college baseball. It's taken untold amounts of heartbreak, but they did it. They did it. They did it.

And as I'm watching the subsequent trophy and championship gear presentation on TV, I just lose it and I start crying my eyes out. Moments later, my mom, who was still in Bakersfield at the time, called me, and she tried in vain to stop me from crying. I hung up shortly after so I could watch the celebration unfold. As soon as SportsCenter aired, I wiped the tears away and went outside to emit some primal screams. I don't think I woke anybody up. But anyway, once outside, I released a full bottle of red Powerade atop my head that I bought earlier in the day just for the occasion. Now I'm positively exhilirated, breathless, and wet. I kept it up into the wee morning hours of June 30, and I had trouble sleeping that night.

It's been almost a year now since that magical run for the South Carolina Gamecocks. And this year, they didn't disappoint in returning for an encore. Heading into the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks were the fourth overall national seed, right behind the Virginia Cavaliers, Florida Gators, and North Carolina Tar Heels. South Carolina swept their way through the Columbia Regional, and they also hosted a Super Regional, beating the UConn Huskies in consecutive games to become the first team since the 2007 Oregon State Beavers to return to Omaha for a shot at defending their title. By the way, Oregon State repeated that year.

History, once a long lineage of underachievers at South Carolina, has since become a favorable thing to look upon for Gamecock fans everywhere with great things yet to happen. It doesn't matter that the College World Series has a new home in TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha. All that does are the Gamecocks' desire to rewrite history not just for themselves, but for an entire athletic program and the legion of fans that has supported them through thick and thin. Now it's just a matter of time.

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