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February 17, 2012

Cloninger: Can it happen again?



"Three, it's a magic number."
--------------------- JACK JOHNSON

It's a strange word, "expectation." Especially at South Carolina, where expectations often far surpass realism.

Coming into 2011, after the Gamecocks won the 2010 national championship, I'm not sure if many "expected" USC to repeat in 2011. It was a possibility, of course, and it had to be mentioned - but realistically, it was a longshot. The Gamecocks had lost all of their pitching, were gambling that a spot-starter in the College World Series would become a serviceable pitcher, and then there was the most obvious reason.

It's hard to get to Omaha. A team has to play 56 regular-season games, avoid injury and heavyweight opponents, then survive a gauntlet of a conference tournament, a round of regionals and a round of Super Regionals. And if it does all that, there are still eight teams competing in the Midwest, where there is no home-field advantage.

I think some folks expected USC to at least get back to Omaha, and maybe a few expected another title. But each group began to decrease as the season progressed and the Gamecocks lost player after player to injury, even while the pitching staff was coming together under improbable ace Michael Roth and two unlikely others - sophomore Colby Holmes, who had never pitched against an SEC opponent, and true freshman Forrest Koumas.

When all seemed lost, on April 23 when USC lost the game to Mississippi State and Jackie Bradley Jr. to a torn wrist ligament, the dream looked to be on its deathbed. But Ray Tanner got his veterans together, told them the year wasn't over and to get back to work. "Win anyway," he said, repeating a mantra that he had told his previous 15 teams at USC.

And suddenly, they did.

The Gamecocks finished the year 25-7, winning their first SEC regular-season championship since 2002 along the way, and won their final 10 games. It didn't really hit until Matt Price stood on the mound at TD Ameritrade Park, staring at the final Florida batter and inducing an easy fly ball - one that Bradley Jr., miraculously healed, caught for the final out.

"Win anyway" became "Back-to-back," as the Gamecocks constantly found ways to win and refused to lose. When it was over, and the second trophy was safely secured, Tanner naturally had to be asked again.

This time, with his pitching staff back and a crop of newcomers that was labeled the best recruiting haul in the country by Collegiate Baseball, the expectations are heavier and perhaps a bit more realistic. The Gamecocks did it once, did it twice - can they become only the second team in history to three-peat, and the first since Southern Cal won an unprecedented five straight championships from 1970-74?

"It's not something we think about," Tanner said. "That's a lot of pressure to live up to. These guys handle pressure, but we can't play the whole season thinking like that."

"Of course it's on our minds," said Price, the lights-out closer who will move into the starting rotation this year. "We want to get it, and we know that we have the team to get it. But we know it will be hard."

The usual SEC schedule awaits, led by Florida, the consensus top-rated team in the preseason and the one that returns almost everybody from a squad that USC beat for the national championship. The Gamecocks have veterans in their pitching staff and their outfield, while replacing their infield with a mix of junior-college talent and freshmen.

Tanner likes the chemistry already, noting the cool confidence of his experienced players and the brash cockiness of his newbies. The talent is clearly there, but there is a long season ahead - the Gamecocks know that they can win due to talent alone, but it takes more than talent. There's no way of knowing if every ball that bounced their way last year in Omaha will continue to do so.

All that's left to do is play, and strive for No. 3. Expectation is great.

But after last year, when slight expectation became reality, the Gamecocks feel good that greater expectation can become greater reality.

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