Friday, July 1, 2011

Ten More Nights In Omaha: That Same Fan's Take Toward Back-To-Back Titles

"Line drive, right field, base hit! South Carolina wins the College World Series!"

With that statement by ESPN announcer Mike Patrick on June 29, 2010, the South Carolina Gamecocks closed out the final College World Series game at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, christening a new era for both the program and the Series.

As I explained earlier in Faulknerian prose, the whole athletic program at the University of South Carolina prior to the 2010 College World Series struggled mightily to win a major national championship, save the women's outdoor track & field team in 2002. And in the three big sports (football, men's basketball, and baseball), the Gamecocks had been close, closer, and closest to winning that elusive title, always falling short.

But on that endless summer night one year ago, the fortune of Gamecock athletics changed forever. In so doing, the pressure to come back to Omaha and win at a new stadium - TD Ameritrade Park - was enormous for head coach Ray Tanner and his team.

In the weeks before the 2010 College World Series ended, seven Gamecocks were taken in the MLB Draft, and three of them would go on to start their professional careers. They were senior starting pitcher Blake Cooper, junior starting pitcher Sam Dyson, and junior right fielder Whit Merrifield. All three played a critical role in putting the Gamecocks in position to win the school's first major men's athletic title. Cooper recorded ten strikeouts and allowed only three hits through eight and one-thirds innings in Game 1 of the final round against UCLA. Dyson pitched two quality starts that saw the Gamecocks win on both occasions to stave off elimination in Omaha. And of course, Merrifield became an instant Gamecock legend by driving home the championship winning run in Game 2 of the College World Series finals.

Even with their departures, the whole team was practically back in their bid to become the first team since the 2007 Oregon State Beavers to repeat as national champions in college baseball. Notable returnees included senior second baseman Scott Wingo, junior center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr., junior starting pitcher Michael Roth, sophomore first baseman Christian Walker, and sophomore closer Matt Price. This team had no intentions to fall short of a return trip to Omaha, and their play on the field proved it.

They never lost more than two games in a row, and they won all but one regular season series lasting three games, which included wins at the University of Florida and at home against Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and even Cal State Bakersfield.

(I'd like to take these next several lines to further explain my fascination with all things Bakersfield. In my earlier piece on the Gamecocks' run to the 2010 College World Series title, I mentioned that I used to live in Bakersfield for the longest time. Well, when I graduated high school there and left later that summer, several of my classmates decided to attend Cal State Bakersfield, shorthanded as CSUB. Now, I've been on the CSUB campus several times myself, and it's very nice. It's sandwiched in between two shopping centers in the southwest part of town, which is where a lot of affluent people reside. Anyway, one of the few things the campus lacked was a baseball field. In fact, they lacked a baseball team altogether until just a few years ago. In 2006, as part of the school's decision to become a Division I athletic program [they were in Division II], CSUB announced that they were gonna add a college baseball team, as well as a women's golf team. Funding issues delayed the baseball team's inaugural season by a year but, in 2009, CSUB fielded their first team with their own newly built stadium. The Roadrunners, which is the school's athletic moniker, have steadily improved with each passing year, including a 2,408 mile road trip to Columbia, South Carolina where they beat the defending national champions in the final game of their series together. Still, the Gamecocks are such for good reason.)

South Carolina headed into the SEC Tournament at the end of the regular season as the perennial favorite to win their first conference title since 2004. But after an opening round victory over Auburn, they lost to Vanderbilt and Georgia, thus eliminating them from further conference competition.

However, South Carolina's strong play all year earned them the number four national seed heading into the NCAA Tournament, as well as their campus to be a host for both Regional and Super Regional play.

In the Columbia Regional, the Gamecocks were paired up with the Stetson Hatters (yes, they're called the Hatters), North Carolina State Wolfpack, and Georgia Southern Eagles. As the number one seed, South Carolina first played Georgia Southern, whom they edged out 2-1. They then faced Stetson, who beat North Carolina State in the other opening round game. This time, the Gamecocks were too much for the Hatters (yes, they really are called the Hatters), beating them twice by scores of 11-5 and 8-2 to advance to the Super Regionals.

South Carolina's next opponent was the surprise UConn Huskies, who beat the heavily favored Clemson Tigers in the Clemson Regional, which would've pitted the two in-state rivals together in a rematch of the College World Series semifinal round last year. I thought (jokingly) that Connecticut couldn't have had a baseball team because virtually every major successful program is either from the southeast, Midwest, or southwest. Even though this was the first time the Huskies were in the Super Regionals, they weren't there by accident. If anything, their top talent alone proved it. Two of UConn's players, outfielder George Springer and pitcher Matt Barnes, were drafted eleventh by the Houston Astros and nineteenth by the Boston Red Sox (respectively) in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft. South Carolina's highest drafted player was Jackie Bradley, Jr., who was taken fortieth overall as a supplemental first round pick by Boston. But back to the action.

In Game 1 of the best-of-three Super Regionals, UConn scored in the first inning to make it 1-0. The Gamecocks took a little bit longer to warm up against Barnes, but when they did, they tagged the UConn ace for five runs scattered throughout the third and fifth innings. The score held up the rest of the way, and South Carolina took the 1-0 series advantage. Game 2 was a bit more tense. The Huskies scored first again, plating two runs in the second inning to make it 2-0 UConn. But like they've done before, the Gamecocks methodically chipped away at the lead. A run here, a run there, and another dramatic home run late in the game by Christian Walker gave South Carolina the slim 3-2 lead heading into the top of the ninth. Because the Gamecocks were the designated road team for the second game, they got to bat first in the top half of that inning. And like all good teams, they saved their best effort for last. In what was a fundamental breakdown of the UConn bullpen, South Carolina scored five runs to essentially put the game out of reach and punch the Gamecocks' tickets back to the College World Series. Matt Price made it official by working a scoreless frame in the bottom of the ninth, giving South Carolina the 8-2 victory and the chance to defend their title in Omaha.

In 2010, South Carolina shocked the college baseball world by winning the College World Series in the fashion they did. In 2011, the only way the Gamecocks would shock anybody is if they didn't repeat as national champions. They were that good.

As it was since 1988, the eight teams that made it to the College World Series – California-Berkley, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Virginia – were divided up in two four-team brackets. The Gamecocks were paired up with the number one national seeded Virginia Cavaliers, the Texas A&M Aggies, and the California Golden Bears, a program that would've been cut after this year had alumni and former players not donated $9 million to keep the sport afloat.

It's worth nothing that this year's field was a stark contrast to the group of eight that competed last year. In 2010, only one national seed - the number six ranked UCLA Bruins - advanced to Omaha. In 2011, all but two of the eight national seeds advanced. The two that didn't were Rice, the eight seed that lost in Regional play, and Florida State, the five seed that lost in the Super Regionals. Coupled with new bat restrictions that significantly reduced offensive production and a new stadium where the wind pushed against the batter instead of with, the 2011 College World Series put a premium on efficient pitching and solid defense. Whoever was to win it all would have to have the best of both.

In their first game, South Carolina would play Texas A&M. Before it began, I uncovered a startling revelation: the Gamecocks hadn't won an opening round game in the College World Series since 1977. Yikes. Needless to say, that made this all the more important for them to win. Not only would it advance them into the winner's bracket, South Carolina would rid itself of yet another ignominious distinction. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, they had the one man on the mound they felt most confident in getting over that hump: junior starting pitcher Michael Roth.

Now, Roth has got an interesting back story all to himself. Prior to last year's College World Series, he had just two career starts. That's it. He was primarily a set-up man for Matt Price in close games. So, in the first game against Clemson in the 2010 College World Series, it was surprising to see him start, to say the least. However, he quieted all doubters - myself included - with a complete game victory to force a winner-take-all match up with a berth to the final round on the line. South Carolina, of course, won that next game to face off against the UCLA Bruins. Up 1-0 in the best-of-three championship round, Roth started again, this time giving up a run in the early going. That was the lone run he allowed, though it took the Gamecocks until the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the game at one all. By that point, Roth was taken out of the game, and all he could do was sit and watch his team clinch the title in dramatic fashion. When he came back for his junior year this season, not only was he a starting pitcher, he was the staff ace. Heading into Omaha, Roth was named an All-American by Baseball America with a win-loss record of 12-3 and a microscopic 1.10 ERA, the latter of which led the nation among all starting pitchers. Oh, and by the way, his GPA of 3.82 was the highest of any participating player at the College World Series, earning him an Academic All-American honor. Impressive numbers all around. And one more thing. His father, David Roth, voluntarily quit his job so he could see his son pitch in Omaha this year. How he handled the pressure is beyond me.

Once the game actually started, it was an interesting battle from start to finish. Texas A&M batted first and they roughed up Roth for four runs, but amazingly, all of them were unearned. I thought to myself (aloud) that a 4-0 deficit after half an inning of baseball was not impossible to overcome. Either the Gamecock dugout was thinking the exact same thing, or the Aggies got a little too comfortable with the early lead. In the home half of the first inning, the Gamecocks delivered the equalizer, scoring four runs as well, two of them unearned. Whether it was nerves or a long layoff, both pitchers for South Carolina and Texas A&M settled themselves in over the rest of the game. For Roth, he pitched into the eighth without a hitch, but the Aggies starter matched him pitch for pitch. Fast forward now to the bottom of the ninth inning, and that's where the real drama commenced. The leadoff man for South Carolina was senior catcher Robert Beary, who doubled to center field. Then, Jackie Bradley, Jr. - last year's Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series - knocked a base hit to left field, advancing Beary to third. Sophomore right fielder Evan Marzilli, the number nine hitter in the lineup, walked to load the bases with no outs for Scott Wingo. Wingo, who batted a paltry 2-for-19 in last year's College World Series, went 3-for-3 that night with a hit by pitch to that point. Known primarily for his defense, he made an additional name for himself in 2011 as a clutch hitter, delivering four of the Gamecocks' five walk-off hits at that time. And once again, he came through. On a 1-2 pitch, he belted a high fly ball to right field that initially looked like it was gonna be a walk-off grad slam. Alas, it hit the wall, but it was enough to score Beary and finally win an opening round game in over three decades. Gamecocks 5, Aggies 4.

South Carolina's next opponent was the number one overall seed in the country for most of the season in the Virginia Cavaliers, who beat the California Golden Bears to face off against the Gamecocks. South Carolina was the designated road team, so they got to bat first. With two outs in the top of the first inning, fielding and throwing errors by Virginia allowed the Gamecocks to score three unearned runs and grab the quick 3-0 lead. Timely hitting for South Carolina would also bring a run in in the fourth and two in the fifth, making it a commanding 6-0 Gamecock lead. The Cavaliers responded with a home run in the bottom of the fifth, a rarity in the College World Series thanks to the new bat restrictions, but that was all they could muster off sophomore starting pitcher Colby Holmes and senior relief pitcher John Taylor. Each threw four and a third innings, and Christian Walker delivered one more RBI in the top of the eighth to put the game out of reach. Gamecocks 7, Cavaliers 1.

Having cruised into the winner's bracket, South Carolina had two whole days of rest until their next game. Before the Gamecocks played the Cavaliers that day, California beat Texas A&M to eliminate the Aggies and face the loser between South Carolina and Virginia. Of course, Virginia lost, and they eventually crushed the Golden Bears two nights later to eliminate them and set up a rematch between two of the top four teams in the country with a spot in the College World Series finals on the line.

This time, the Gamecocks were the designated home team and Roth was up to pitch again. However, the Cavaliers had their own ace on the mound in Danny Hultzen, the number two overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners. And that night, Hultzen proved why he was worthy of such a high pick. Of the first nine Gamecock batters he faced, he struck out eight of them. You heard me right. That was scary good. Of course, Roth was scary good in his own right, but he was a little erratic in the early innings which led to a quick 1-0 Cavalier lead after two innings. However, something fortuitous happened for the Gamecocks. Despite having struck out nearly every batter he faced, Hultzen was pulled after just three innings. Why? Turns out, he was battling the flu all game long, and his coach thought it best to take him out before he got too ill. I thought (aloud) that with his departure, now was the time for South Carolina to capitalize. And they did. In the next inning they got to bat, the Gamecocks plated two runs for the slim 2-1 lead. It stood that way until the top of the eighth inning. With a runner on second and one out, junior shortstop Peter Mooney allowed a ground ball hit to him go through his legs and bring the tying run home. The score remained 1-1 through nine innings, and extras were necessary.

In the top of the thirteenth inning, Virginia had the bases loaded with no outs, easily their best chance to break this game wide open and force a winner-take-all scenario the following night. At this point, I'd like to point out a statistic I read once before which said that the chances of getting out of a no out, bases loaded jam without allowing a run was 2.7%. That's not good. Still, South Carolina closer Matt Price was in the game, pitching his unprecedented fifth inning of relief, and this was his toughest challenge yet in this Series. He breathed a huge sigh of relief after striking out the fourth Virginia batter for the first out. He breathed an even huger sigh of relief when, on the next pitch he threw, the fifth Virginia batter hit a screaming line drive directly to Wingo, who tossed it to Mooney running straight to second base for an incredible 4-6 double play to end the threat. (Actually, Price didn't sigh. It was more of a primal scream.)

Come the bottom half of that inning, the intensity really escalated. After fouling off pitch after pitch, sixth-year senior catcher Brady Thomas (as the designated hitter) lined a single to center field, and he was swiftly replaced for a pinch runner in junior outfielder Adam Matthews. The next batter, Mooney, bunted down the first base line for a potential sacrifice. However, the Virginia pitcher decided to get Matthews out at second. His throw went wide left of the second baseman and into the outfield. Matthews wisely stayed at second, which meant two on with no outs for Robert Beary. On the first pitch he saw, Beary bunted directly back to the pitcher. The pitcher went straight to third for the force out but, incredibly, he threw this one away, too. The ball went sailing past the third baseman, and Matthews literally came home with the walk-off victory. What an incredible turn of events! I'm screaming like the (half-)Italian I am, and it's an ending that seemed too good to be real. Not even Hollywood could produce a believable script like what just happened. But more importantly, with the win, South Carolina advanced to their second consecutive College World Series finals to face a familiar foe. Gamecocks 3, Cavaliers 2.

That familiar foe was the Florida Gators, an SEC rival. Personally, I can't think of any other team I'd want my Gamecocks to face, save Clemson and possibly Georgia, for a shot at winning a national title. Not only are they in the same conference, they compete in the same division, so these are two teams that know each other inside and out. Earlier in the regular season, South Carolina played Florida in Gainesville, and the Gamecocks took two out of three there to win that series. Other than that, they were equally matched in just about every which way. Whoever won this College World Series would have to do so by executing the fundamentals better than the other.

Game 1 featured an interesting pitching match up. For South Carolina, they sent true freshman Forrest Koumas to face off against Florida's Hudson Randall, a sophomore who earlier in the season threw a complete game two-hitter against these same Gamecocks. Through two innings, Randall and Koumas struck out five batters and watched their teams make an error without costing them a run. But, in the bottom of the third inning, the mistakes started catching up. With a runner on second base with one out, Koumas threw a wild pitch past Beary to allow the runner to advance to third. That same batter Koumas pitched to hit the ball deep enough to left field to bring the runner home, giving the Gators the 1-0 lead via the sacrifice fly. That score remained until the top of the eighth. Mooney led off that inning with a walk, and he advanced to second on a sac bunt by Beary and to third on a fly out by Marzilli. With two outs and the tying run ninety feet away, in steps Scott Wingo in another clutch situation. On a 1-2 pitch, he hit a dribbler out of Randall's reach and past the diving efforts of the second baseman, which allowed Mooney to tie the game at one all. Still, the Gators were the designated home team, so they had the final say so in the game's score. What transpired from the bottom of the ninth inning onward was nothing short of a thriller.

In that frame, the Gamecocks (once again) were in a dire situation. Taylor replaced Tyler Webb for South Carolina, who came in relief for Koumas after the starter pitched five and two thirds innings. But, the Gators loaded the bases with no outs off the submariner. 2.7% came to mind again, especially with a series lead in the championship round at stake. All Florida needed to do was hit a ball past the infield, be it in the air or on the ground, to set off an amazing walk-off victory for the Gators. South Carolina drew their infield in, knowing they need to get the force out at home above all else. On an 0-2 pitch, the fourth Florida batter slapped a grounder to the left of Taylor, but Wingo dove on the ball, caught it, fired it to home, and Beary snagged the ball on a hop to get that crucial first out. (Whew.) The infield went back to their normal position, knowing that a double play could end another Gator threat. On the 0-1 pitch, the fifth Florida batter again hit it to Wingo, who fired it to Beary for out number two, who fired it to Christian Walker at first base for the third out by half a step. The Gamecocks got out of yet another jam, but the pressure was still on heading into yet another extra inning game.

In the bottom of the tenth inning, the score was still 1-1 and the Gators were determined to end this game at once. After some more strategic hitting, Florida had runners one first and second with two out and the SEC Player of the Year, catcher Mike Zunino, up to bat. On the first pitch Zunino saw, he hit a ground ball into left field and the lead runner was waved home. With no time to waste, junior Jake Williams fired a strike on the fly to Beary, who tagged out the potential game-winning run to force an eleventh inning. I'm fired up at this point, but I can only wonder how long this marathon will last.

Now it's the top of the eleventh inning, and Walker stepped in after Jackie Bradley, Jr. lined out to first base. Oh, I forgot to mention one minor detail about Walker. After the second game against Virginia, he fractured a hamate bone in his left wrist, which normally would put him out of action for several weeks. In fact, until maybe half an hour before that first game against Florida, Walker was unsure if he'd hold up. However, team doctors taped up his wrist and bat for the game, and after hitting several home runs in batting practice, head coach Ray Tanner penciled him in for the game. In Walker's first at bat, he doubled to right field. And in the eleventh, he singled to center field. Matthews replaced Thomas as the designated hitter, in hopes that the speedy Matthews can force the Gators to make an error. They did, but not while he was running. Following the 1-0 pitch, Walker attempted to steal second base. Zunino's throw was too high and Walker, who slid headfirst on a fractured wrist mind you, got up to steal third. Improbably, the Gator center fielder threw the ball to third base, ricocheted off something and sailed into the stands, which allowed Walker to score the go-ahead run. Two consecutive throwing errors by a Gator defense known as one of the best fielding teams in the country got me absolutely pumped up. I mean, in their last game, South Carolina won because Virginia's defense literally threw the game away. To possibly win back-to-back games on a defense's miscues is unheard of. But somehow, that's how it ended. Florida battled back like they always did in that game, but the South Carolina defense held up to steal Game 1 in an unforgettable fashion. Gamecocks 2, Gators 1.

I should've spent all of June 28, 2011 preparing myself for what could be the championship-clinching game against a fierce SEC rival. Instead, I was up tending to my father, who was in a local day surgery center undergoing an operation to repair his left knee. At best, he would be fine by night's end. At worst, he could lose his entire left leg. Fortunately, my father was very opportunistic about his chances for a steady operation, and following the Gamecocks' thrilling victory over Florida the previous night, I was flushed with confidence that he'd get through it in one piece, too. So I sat and waited in a cool room, away from the humidity and hours removed from Game 2. At that point, the finals took a back seat because my father, though not the most model citizen in the world, was the one individual who helped saw me through college with as little external stress as possible. At 3 p.m. EST, I was called in to see my father, alive and well in the recovery room. We stayed there for an hour before I escorted him home. After a big dinner (he hadn't eaten anything for a day), I donned my South Carolina garnet and black, rubbed my slightly dirty, slightly offensive Gamecock hat before putting it on, and tuned into ESPN for another clash of two titans in college baseball.

In Game 2, the starting pitchers flipped their status for both teams. Much like last year and in his two previous games in this year's College World Series, Michael Roth got the nod to lead his team to victory. Standing in his way was freshman Karsten Whitson, the ninth overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft who turned down $2 million from the San Diego Padres to play for the Florida Gators. If that isn't commitment, I don't know what is. South Carolina was the designated home team for game two and, through two and a half innings, both teams had a combined one hit, a single by Florida's lead-off man to start the game.

But by the bottom of the third inning, the Gamecocks drew first blood. Mooney led off with a double to left field, and a sac bunt by Beary moved him to third. Marzilli walked, and Wingo flied out to right field, which was deep enough to score Mooney for the 1-0 Gamecock lead. Jackie Bradley Jr., who couldn't hit worth a hill of beans in this year's College World Series, walked. Then came Christian Walker, still batting with a left wrist fracture, and he hit a hard grounder to the shortstop. But the shortstop misplayed the ball, which bounced off his glove, and allowed Marzilli to score from second. Next was Brady Thomas who hit a soft grounder past the pitcher and to the second baseman. By half a step, Thomas was safe and Bradley, Jr., who was running on contact, scored from third. Senior third baseman Adrian Morales grounded out back to the pitcher, but the damage had been done. South Carolina led 3-0 through three innings.

Florida answered back in the next inning as Zunino led off the top of the fourth with a home run that barely made it into the stands in left center field, cutting the Gamecock lead down to 3-1. With that shot, it was just the second earned run given up by Roth in 47 and two thirds innings pitched in the College World Series. But that was the easiest run the Gators would get all night. Despite having at least one runner in scoring position in the fifth and sixth innings, Roth and the Gamecocks were able to get out of each jam unscathed. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Mooney led off with his own home run that just got past the right field wall and into the Gamecock bullpen. It was the first home run hit by South Carolina in Omaha with the new bats. Zunino's homer was offset by Mooney's, and the Gamecock lead was back to 3, up 4-1.

It would take until the eighth inning before either team scored again. Despite getting two outs and leaving Zunino at third, Roth was pulled out of the game for Taylor. Roth left to a overwhelmingly deserved standing ovation, for his shutdown pitching kept every Gamecock opponent in check, both in this year's College World Series and last. Taylor, unfortunately, couldn't get that final out. He allowed a base hit and Zunino scored to cut the Gamecock lead down to 4-2. Taylor, who made his forty-ninth appearance on the year for the second-most by a pitcher in a season of Division I baseball, was pulled in favor of Price to get the final four outs. Price delivered, freezing the next Gator batter on a called third strike. In the bottom of the eighth, Beary led off with a single to right. Marzilli sacrificed him over to second, and Wingo came through in the clutch once more, knocking a base hit into right field to score Beary and push the Gamecocks up three for the 5-2 lead.

Like the bottom of the eleventh inning last year in Game 2 of the championship round, I will never forget the top of the ninth inning for as long as I'll live. The lead-off man flied out to Jackie Bradley Jr., in center field for the first out. Then, Florida brought in a pinch hitter, but he grounded out to Walker, who tagged first base by himself for the second out. All the while, I'm relaying this information to my mom, who still lived in Bakersfield at the time, because her cable was cut, she was evicted from her apartment, and my father refused to pay her rent anymore after consenting for years on end. (I told y'all he wasn't a model citizen.) I do my best play-by-play, but it's somewhat difficult doing it as a fan of which whose team are outs away from repeating as national champions. It's also difficult because my mom isn't a big baseball aficionado as I am, so I occasionally have to repeat and clarify what I said. Anyway, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Florida called for another pinch hitter. I didn't catch his name at first, so I told my mom he was Ben Mencham. (I initially had Ben Meecham in mind which, for you Pat Conroy fans out there, is the protagonist of his sophomore novel, The Great Santini. It's a great read if you're into the psychological struggles of life in a Marine family. But I digress.) The first pitch he saw was a ball and, when the graphic came up, I corrected myself to say he was actually Ben McMahan. Upon doing so, he lifted a fly ball to left center field, where Jackie Bradley, Jr. was under it, and he made the catch for the final out (though I don't understand why he threw the ball into the stands). I pumped my fist in the air, ignored Mike Patrick's final call to tell my mom the Gamecocks won back-to-back national titles, and I tweeted this just seconds later. (I already had it typed up heading into the top of the ninth.) The whole Gamecock dugout dogpiled by the pitching mound, streamers shot off, and the University of South Carolina fight song played for Gamecock fans everywhere, myself included.

Shortly thereafter, ESPN interviewed Michael Roth, head coach Ray Tanner, Christian Walker, and Scott Wingo, the latter of whom was named the Most Outstanding Player for the 2011 College World Series. It was all a blur to me, as I couldn't stop smiling, pumping fists, and thinking of my team as back-to-back national champions. Wow. Once is difficult enough, but to do it again, and in a day and age where the best players are upperclassmen eager to depart for the professional ranks, is quite impressive.

With their 5-2 victory, the Gamecocks set a few NCAA records all to their own. Their sixteen consecutive NCAA Tournament wins and eleven consecutive College World Series wins, both of which started as a blowout victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils in last year's College World Series, became the new, all-time marks for postseason greatness in college baseball. South Carolina also became the first team to go undefeated through an entire College World Series since the 2001 University of Miami Hurricanes and the sixth team to win back-to-back College World Series titles. (For the record, the only team to win more than two College World Series titles in a row was Southern California, the other USC, when they won an unprecedented five straight from 1970 to 1974.) Seven of their players - Price, Roth, Walker, Wingo, Mooney, Beary, and Thomas - were named to the All-Tournament team. For Roth, he finished this College World Series with a 1.17 ERA, the second lowest mark for a pitcher in the College World Series who threw at least 30 innings in Omaha. This was as magical of an ending that I've ever witnessed for any of my teams. True, the final game this year wasn't as dramatic and full of closure like the walk-off win against UCLA last year, but a national championship is a national championship. Twice is nice, and I'll carry this moment to my grave, as well.

After I gained some composure, I celebrated in my own way. By that, I meant that I went outside with a cold bottle of red Gatorade (fittingly), drank a few sips, and dumped the rest all over myself. I had a hard time breathing for about five seconds. When I got myself together, I threw my Gatorade bottle in an outdoor trash bin (because I didn't wanted to be charged for littering when I got up the next morning), removed my 3' x 5' South Carolina state flag off its pole by my front door, and put it on my bed as a makeshift blanket. I had enough energy left in me to take a shower, because I didn't want myself nor my sheets to be red and sticky the next morning. And through it all, my playoff beard (or lack thereof) went the distance. After I cleaned up, I still felt rough around the face, but I knew that it had done its job for me. When South Carolina made it back to the NCAA Tournament this year, I vowed not to shave until they were eliminated. Not only were they never eliminated, they never lost a game.

That night, I slept like a champion, like I had helped win the College World Series for them along with the entire team. Because their wins were my wins, and their losses were my losses, too. Sounds crazy, but it isn't. That's called loyal devotion. If I had to pick just one team to cheer for, collegiate or professional, I'd pick the South Carolina Gamecocks every day of the week. I've been for them for as long as I could remember, and it was very difficult living with the fact that, for the longest time, they were always the bridesmaid, but never the bride. But having won back-to-back national titles in the one sport I felt they could dominate, things are now looking up for the whole athletic program. And even if their bid for a three-peat falls short, what they did in two seasons is enough to jump-start my confidence for all time. 'Coz this transcends sports. It gives me hope for the future in every facet of life, that history can be rewritten, and that perseverance and determination is enough to stand up to life's challenges and come out triumphant.

It's great to be a Gamecock.

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