BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - LB Dantzler remembered the first time he walked into the South Carolina locker room and started stowing his gear. Someone noticed the tattered, dirt-encrusted batting gloves that he removed from his duffel and put away.
Dantzler was asked if he wanted new ones. Not knowing the routine, Dantzler said sure. A minute later, he had two brand-new batting gloves.
"In junior college, you get one T-shirt, maybe a pair of shorts if you're lucky," South Carolina's first baseman said after practice this week, as he and his teammates prepared for the SEC tournament. "You're buying your batting gloves, buying your cleats. We're like, 'Wait, we get batting gloves?' Even one pair is awesome."
Dantzler, along with third baseman Chase Vergason, each came to USC for the 2012 season and started right away, playing integral parts in the Gamecocks' run to the national championship series. Graham Saiko joined the team in 2013 and was installed in left field right away, also hitting leadoff for the majority of the year, and veteran catcher Dante Rosenberg has supplied leadership and depth at catcher for each of the past two years.
They're all the latest examples of the JUCO pipeline that runs from the talent-rich two-year schools in Florida to Columbia. Former coach Ray Tanner loved to recruit three or four JUCO players every year, and became known for not only playing them, but enabling them to be able to produce enough to be known as All-SEC or All-American players, and new head coach Chad Holbrook wasn't going to change that approach when he took over. As Tanner's recruiting coordinator since 2009, Holbrook was responsible for finding guys like Dantzler and Vergason, and it's a practice that he'll continue.
"They just give you some maturity, toughness, they're not expecting anything," Holbrook said. "They know what it's like to play on a field without a locker room or without jerseys. When you play at a junior-college level, obviously, a lot of those programs are under-funded. They don't have all the neat things that are afforded to them at a D-I school. So they're very appreciative of all the things they get once they get here."
The JUCOs churn out the talent, and Holbrook followed Tanner's lead by building relationships with coaches to get the best such talent to USC. The Gamecocks have built a reputation about getting those kinds of players and playing them - think 2002 SEC Player of the Year Yaron Peters, all the way to current volunteer assistant coach Brian Buscher - and once Tanner or Holbrook began coming around, the JUCOs knew that they had a chance to be playing in front of far more than the 200 or so fans they were used to.
"I heard a little bit about it, just from when coach Tanner was here, and I lived with LB in the summer before I got here," said Saiko, who has started all 48 games he's played in this year (he missed five games with a wrist injury). "I know JUCO players have been a really big part of the success here at South Carolina, so I was just hoping to come in and try to do the same thing."
Dantzler didn't know much about USC's tradition before he signed, but after being offered, he began to research. It wasn't so much about how a Chad Blackwell or a Travis Jones had come in and done well with the Gamecocks, it was that they were losing a third baseman (JUCO product Adrian Morales) and they had other JUCO players on the roster, all of whom were appearing in the stat sheets.
"I wasn't on any scholarship, nobody knew who I was," Dantzler said. "There wasn't any pressure on me other than trying to earn a spot. The guys like (Matt) Price, (Michael) Roth, (Christian) Walker, all those guys who had been there and won the World Series. I was just trying to find a way to help the team."
It's also where he found out that the JUCOs had their own nickname.
"Coach Tanner said it to me walking in the weight room one day," Dantzler said. "He said, 'There's another one of the JUCO Bandits.' He calls all the JUCO guys that.
"We've kind of taken it, we joke around with (director of operations) Kyle Lipsey. These freshmen come in, they want new cleats, new batting gloves if they got a hole in it. We're used to playing with old beat-up equipment."
It's not that USC won't take high-school players - like every team, the Gamecocks load up on high-school players since JUCOs also bring one factor that high-school kids don't. JUCO players can be drafted after one year and leave, while high-school kids are guaranteed of sticking around at least three years.
But the JUCOs bring ready-made experience and leadership, plus talent, to the diamond. Who knows if freshmen Grayson Greiner, Tanner English and Joey Pankake settle in as well as they did last year if Dantzler and Vergason weren't around to guide them on the field?
"We're not all the young guys that come in here," Vergason said. "We were brought up kind of a different way coming out of high school, a kind of, 'Anything goes in JUCO.' We didn't have all the luxuries that we do now. That's why we're the JUCO Bandits."
Many of them live together and hang out together when they're not on the field. It's not that they're distancing themselves from the freshmen, it's that they're more comfortable with guys who have been through the rigors that they have. Dantzler came from the State College of Florida, Vergason came from Brevard Community College and Saiko's latest stop was Tallahassee Community College, after starting out at Oklahoma State.
There's no wearing of Lone Ranger-esque masks or T-shirts trumpeting the moniker. They're just the JUCO Bandits, playing hard and winning games.
"The years we won the national championship, we had some great high-school kids in (Scott) Wingo and Price and Jackie (Bradley Jr.) and Roth. We also had some good JUCO kids in Morales, John Taylor … we had a good mix," Holbrook said. "They look at the breakdown of the roster and know (teams) are not returning a starter at that position. They're also smart enough to know that if they're not playing, it's because they got beat out by someone that's two years younger than them.
"They're a couple of years older. They're very mature, they know how to handle themselves on and off the field. There's not a period of adjustment as far as learning what college is all about. We're not where we are with out Chase and LB and Graham. We don't win two national championships without Adrian. They've helped us win. I'm sold on them."