Oral history: Fear the fish, Clemson and the Gamecocks' dream run in 2012
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS BASEBALL
South Carolina was on a roll entering the 2012 season and it ended, like the previous two seasons did, at the College World Series.
The Gamecocks did make it back to the national championship series that year, ultimately losing to Arizona in two games, while also seeing its dominant 22-game postseason win streak snapped.
It was the end of a truly amazing era and college baseball dynasty lasting for almost three years and in this final part of a three part series, this is the behind the scenes story of that crazy 2012 year, Ray Tanner’s final as a head coach.
Fear the fish
To understand this season, it’s important to understand where the Gamecocks were a few weekends into the year.
After a 1-5 start in SEC play, the Gamecocks were looking for answers and ultimately found them from an unlikely source. Heading down to Auburn for a series, LB Dantzler brought his pet beta fish, Reptar, and the legend of Fear the Fish was born.
Jordan Montgomery, pitcher: Yeah, Reptar. We did some stupid stuff. Those guys were just kind of goofing off and I think LB (Dantzler) had the fish and couldn’t find someone to feed it. It ended up on the bus with us. The media found out about it and before it fans are all over it.
LB Dantzler, third baseman: I honestly thought it’d be funny more than anything. It was really just a joke. I was half expecting him to die that weekend. I was going to be surprised if he survived.
Patrick Sullivan, pitcher: We couldn’t find anybody to watch his damn fish...so we take the damn fish with us on this 10-hour bus trip. We had been struggling a little during the year and once that happens the fish had to keep coming. It’s one of those superstitious things…You’re going to keep doing it.
Dantzler: We won on Sunday and by Tuesday there were shirts made and that became the rally cry. And the inside of our Super Regional rings have the little beta fish on the inside of them…actually the day Coach Tanner resigned was the day Reptar died.
Clemson comes back to town
The Gamecocks figured it out, finishing 18-11 in SEC play and earning the second of back-to-back national seeds in the NCAA Tournament. But, when the field was announced, they saw a familiar face in its regional.
Clemson, who the Gamecocks beat twice already that year, was coming for the regional, prompting some mixed emotions from the team.
Sammy Esposito, assistant coach: We thought it was a little BS. We played them already and its right there. They should be sent somewhere else. Give us another ACC team. I think it might have been Georgia Tech was the other team we could have gotten.. It doesn’t matter who’s the best team or the worst team in those situations. It’s the dreaded rival. It takes it to a completely different scenario.
Evan Marzilli, outfielder: I was like, “You have to be kidding me? How does this work out to where we have to play our rival?” As much as I love playing Clemson, I didn’t want to face them in that situation. I was so spoiled to the point where I was thinking this was unfair. We shouldn’t have to face this good of a team, especially at our place.
Adam Matthews, outfielder: We knew Clemson would be in that regional and we wanted Clemson in that regional. We knew how much of a mental advantage we had over them.
Sullivan: After the last two years, you could see it in Clemson’s face that they’re like, “Oh s—t, we have to play Carolina again.” It wasn’t the opposite way around; 2011 was when we got separated at the end of the game at Fluor Field. It was one of those things where you look at some of these Clemson guys and you can see it on their face where it was like, “S—t, how the f—k did we get matched up with Carolina?”
Billy Anderson, strength coach: It becomes big. The games were close and it was a bigger deal, but it makes it more fun. It’s nice to be at that point and know you’re kings of the state and eliminate your biggest rival.
Both teams won their first games of the regional, setting up a winners’ bracket game that went down to the wire.
After jumping out to a quick lead, the Gamecocks found themselves down by a run entering the ninth inning. That’s when Kyle Martin laced a pinch-hit RBI single to tie the game before LB Dantzler launched a walk-off single to the wall in right field.
Dantzler: I remember I looked at Coach Tanner and he kept looking at me like, “You better get this done.”… It was outer third and I kind of came around it and just caught it out in front a little bit and was enough to get it out to the warning track but it probably was a pitch I should have stayed back on and hit to left-center. But that’s a little bit of the pressure getting pull happy. But, it was good enough to get the job done. If he had thrown me a curveball I don’t know what would have happened because I was pretty much in swing mode. Luckily it was a fastball.
Tommy Moody, radio color analyst: When you consider the clutch hitting in that game and clutch hitting and the unbelievable defense by both teams, to me that may be the best overall game I’ve seen a South Carolina team played considering how the opposition played and how the Gamecocks played to win that game in 12 innings. It may be the best Carolina baseball game I’ve ever seen.
Dantzler: I still have the picture on my wall to this day…It’s of Coach Tanner basically coming up to me and saying something along the lines of, “I was going to have to kill you if you didn’t get that hit.”
The Gamecocks would go on to win the regional, holding on for a 4-3 win over the Tigers the next day thanks to a stellar performance from Jordan Montgomery and a 2.1-inning save from Tyler Webb as the Gamecocks eliminated their arch rival from the postseason for the second time in three years.
Marzilli: You can’t make this stuff up. You put Clemson out of the tournament twice? You can’t make that stuff up if you’re writing your story.
Tyler Webb: I think I had a couple big strikeouts but there were so many people at those Clemson games that they had forklifts like out of the street…They’re on that street out in right field just jacked the forklifts up and watched the games from there.
Matthews: It was awesome. It’s something you dream about as a little kid. You want to be on that big stage and in the big moment. I’m just happy I was able to be a part of it and contribute and be a big part of why we continued to progress. It’s something I’ll never forget and be able to tell my kids and grandkids about.
Out to Omaha again
They’d then cruise to another home Super Regional win over Oklahoma, outscoring the Sooners 10-1 over 18 innings and found themselves in an all-too-familiar place: going to Omaha.
Dantzler: That whole two weeks was just surreal. I remember as the postseason went on I remember less and less. It was just so incredible. We check into the hotel and there are people waiting with signs, flags and it felt like we were rock stars. At time, maybe you don’t appreciate it as much as you do in hindsight because we’re seeing it all the time at South Carolina.
Montgomery: It was pretty intense. I mean all the guys were prepping us about how crazy fans were when we were shagging BP. They were telling us to expect some trash talk and see some crazy things. It was fun, and that’s the stage you want to be on. They had all these water floats with their phone numbers written on them and all the most absurd jokes written on them.
They’d draw Florida, a team they beat in the national championship series last year, in game one and surged late for a 7-3 win, the 22nd-straight postseason win for the South Carolina program.
Dantzler: They were the number one national seed. For me personally, my dad played at Florida and I grew up a diehard Gator fan. To me growing up I wanted to be a Gator and they told me my senior year, they brought me into the office during camp and told me basically I’m not good enough… Then, earlier in the year I went a cool 0-for-9 to start our series with them with a big strikeout with the bases loaded. It was not the redemptive story I had imagined. I think I was feeling a little more intense than the other guys.
The end of a streak, the end of an era
They advanced after that to play Arkansas, a team they took two games from on the road earlier in the season. And, they found themselves in a familiar spot late, in the game but trailing in the middle innings but not getting the same breaks they’d grown accustomed to the last two seasons.
Tyler Webb, pitcher: I don’t think there was any worry that we were going to lose that game. At a certain point you can’t keep putting themselves in a situation waiting on a miracle to happen. You just have to get out to a good start and we didn’t.
Esposito: You feel like you’re going to come back. It didn’t really sink in until the final out was recorded. It was a tight game; it wasn't like it was a blowout on their end and you had no chance. You felt like you had a chance. You felt like every other game we played in all honesty.
They’d fall behind 2-0 early and scrape across just one run and hit 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position while being held to just one run.
Michael Roth, pitcher: I remember in the second game when I was throwing looking at Christian and saying “This must be what it felt like to play us the last two years,” because nothing was bouncing our way.
They’d ultimately lose the game 2-1, snapping the game’s longest-ever postseason win streak and ending one of the most dominant eras in college baseball history.
Roth: That game almost doesn’t register in my mind. Yeah we lost but we weren’t focused on the record; we knew about it because we were always asked about it but it was never something that was constantly on my mind.
Marzilli: After dominating for so long, it was just a weird feeling. Not like we changed—we still sang on the bus and did all of that, but we were like, “That streak’s over. It’s time to start a new one.” We had to come back and win some games to get back there and did what we did to Arkansas what we did to Clemson two years before and we’re all thinking we’re going to win this thing again.
But, like in 2010, they found their way back to the championship series beating Kent State and then Arkansas twice before ultimately falling short of their chance at a three-peat to Arizona.
Moody: I think one thing you worry about in a game like that was you only scored one run…Then you get a chance for redemption against Arkansas. Arkansas beats them to snap that unbelievable streak for South Carolina, which is fabulous for the Razorbacks but now you’re telling them they have to do it again? And the Gamecocks got them 2-0 and 3-2. Arkansas fans, believe you me from going over there several times, they still are upset at the home plate umpiring.
Can it stand the test of time?
The Gamecocks ended their three years of dominance by becoming one of just six schools to win back-to-back titles in baseball and left a mark on the sport that some honestly think can’t be broken again.
The record currently sits at 22 games and since the Gamecocks set it, no other team has really come close. The longest streaks have come from UCLA and Vanderbilt who both rattled off 10 straight wins, a full 12 games short of even tying the record.
Marzilli: If there’s one thing that I don’t think would be replicated it’s that. if you would have listened all those teams out we would beat before I got to college and the arms we’d face and the amount of first-rounders we’d see and told me, “You guys are going to win all of these games in a row over a three year span,” I would have said there’s no way. There’s no way. Just even sweeping a postseason in general is unheard of, and do it over a three-year span? Gosh. I’m sure it’ll be done some day but it’ll be hard for me to imagine.
Adrian Morales, third baseman (2010-11): That will never be topped. I don’t think so. I think our coaches did a great job recruiting and not just recruiting talent but recruiting character and the right mold. A lot goes out to Coach Tanner, Coach Holbrook, Calvi, Espo, Meyers, whoever had a hand in recruiting because they did a great job recruiting not just good players but the right guys. I don’t think it’ll be topped. It’s so hard to recruit. It’s not the same it used to be. It’ll be hard to top 22 straight.
Ryan Fischer, equipment manager: Will that be topped? In a history context with 22 (games)? There’s no chance. Not by us, not by anybody.
Jerry Meyers, pitching coach: I don’t think it will but you never say never. When it even happened, I probably didn’t’ reflect on it maybe until the last couple years just thinking there were some really good teams out there that went on some really good runs but I can’t see that happening. There was already parity so it wasn’t like Southern Cal in the 80s or Texas whenever nobody could beat those guys. It was pretty awesome.
Christian Walker, first baseman: I think it’s something where the stars are going to have to align pretty perfectly to change that. With losing game one and winning out, repeating and winning out, obviously the games in Omaha are really hard but you can’t look over regionals and super regionals and things like that. Postseason baseball anything can happen…for me that’s something I’m really proud of and the team’s really proud of.
Jay Brown, pitcher (2010): That, to me, is a Cal Ripken, Joe DiMaggio, Pete Rose with his hits type of thing. I’d be shocked.
Brady Thomas, catcher (2010-11): It might be a while. It took the right kind of team for three years to set it straight, and even on that third year we had a lot of guys that were on those teams the first two years. They were young. We had ballplayers. You just had those ballplayers and I don’t know if I’ve seen a team with that style or that group of guys like we were.
Whit Merrifield, outfielder (2010): I call it a stupid sport, and it is with some of the stuff that happens with the way the ball bounces. You can do everything right and hammer the ball but if you hit a ball off the handle and get a hit. For someone to go out and 22 straight games in postseason baseball, I don’t know if that’ll even get close to being touched again.
Ray Tanner, head coach: It could be, but day in and day out we just went through a streak that defied the odds quite honestly. There are some really good teams here but it’s hard when you talk about postseason play to win every single one for two and a half years.
Roth: That’s almost three years of baseball. The parity in college baseball nowadays and the types of players that can go to JUCO to go and get drafted right away? I just think it’ll be hard to beat. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a powerhouse school like South Carolina go back and do it again.