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June 13, 2011

COMMENTARY: Thrilling Ride Isn't Over

"The boys are back in town."
----------------------- THIN LIZZY

It was April 23, and South Carolina's season was over.

I knew it. Watching Jackie Bradley Jr. dive for that ball at Mississippi State, I knew it. The first sign was when the ball popped out of his glove - how often does that happen? - and the second was when he kept shaking his wrist, like it was numb and he was trying to wake it up.

Ray Tanner looked like he'd just been told the Yankees would never win another World Series. As serious as a heart attack, he said that while he didn't have an immediate diagnosis, it looked bad. "He could be out for quite a while," he said, and even he had to realize the gravity of what he and his team was facing.

Tanner has never let his team play with excuses, adopting the mantra, "Gotta win anyway." But this, losing the Gamecocks' most dynamic player and the most outstanding player from the last College World Series, after already going through a team-wide litany of medical issues, was challenging that line.

I was sure the Gamecocks would continue to compete, but competing and winning are different. I thought that USC would win some games going forward, but sooner or later, the absence of Bradley Jr. and the rest of the injured contributors would catch up, and the thrill ride from watching this team win the national championship last year would be over.

Some things you just can't do nothing about, you know? USC was so beat up that it had to turn to a guy who hadn't picked up a bat in three years and say, "Steven Neff, you'll pitch again, but right now, head to the outfield."

And somehow, with a patchwork lineup and not knowing who was going to be the next player to tweak some kind of limb, the Gamecocks won anyway.

USC took 20 of its final 25 games, rallying for two straight wins in each of its final two SEC series. The last win at Alabama clinched the program's first SEC regular-season championship since 2002 and the Gamecocks received a just reward for their fine season with home-field advantage throughout the NCAA Regionals and NCAA Super Regionals.

It was a very tough field USC had to face, the Gamecocks trailing in four of their five postseason games, but they found ways to overcome. The key hit or double play or third strike was always just around the corner, Tanner realizing that his team had something that overcame the depleted talent on the roster.

"These guys get it," he said, and nothing could describe this bunch more. The Gamecocks had so much veteran experience and leadership from last season's run that it had stayed in place for this season. Tanner hardly ever had to push buttons because his team was already doing it to itself.

"If you can find the right group of guys, you've got a chance," Tanner said as he discussed his fifth trip to Omaha in the past 10 years. "I believe in that very strongly. When you have a guy like Wingo, Thomas and Walker, so many guys who have been there before, you give yourself a chance."

That's all Tanner wanted from his club this year. Just the chance. The pressure on him to go back to the CWS was immense, because now, he was a national champion coach. Once a team wins it, it's expected for it to at least go back the next year, and then the talk really begins - that pesky "repeat" term.

Throw in that, and the way the injuries kept happening to significant players - the fastest outfield in the country in the preseason was cut to Evan Marzilli by season's end, and he had to miss a couple of games after an irregular heartbeat was diagnosed - and the Gamecocks easily could have crumbled. And it would have been hard to blame them for doing it.

Instead, they kept plugging away, never going into any game thinking of what wasn't available. The Gamecocks only thought about what was, in both talent and opportunity.

They're back.

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