Did I mention we're national champions? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Gamecocks are national champions! More than a week after our title clenching victory over UCLA, I'm still not tired of hearing that. I honestly don't think I'll ever get tired of it. Let's take a step back, though. Way back in February did you envision the Gamecocks becoming the hottest team in the country and taking it all? I sure didn't. Heck, as recently as the series loss to Florida I honestly didn't think the Gamecocks would make it out of their super regional. But they proved all of the doubters wrong when they came together at the most important time of the season. Since this was such an historic season for USC Baseball, let's take a moment to reflect on the most successful season in Gamecocks history.
After the jump: the 2010 baseball season in review.
2010 started out much like every other season for the Yardcocks. Expectations were high, as they always are in Columbia, but did not approach the buzz that surrounded the program in Justin Smoak and Reese Havens' final year. Around early February I formulated the line that I would end up towing practically the entire year - namely, that USC was a good but not great team.
After sweeping the opening series with Duquesne by a combined score of 28-9, the Gamecocks looked like they do every year - great offense, tepid pitching. Christian Walker hit two home runs in as many games in a Gamecocks uniform while Scott Wingo showed marked improvement over the previous year. Gamecock fans were already salivating of the possibility of a line-up that started out Merrifield, Bradley, Walker, Ebert, Jones whenever Nick Ebert came back from academic probation.
However the dreams were short-lived after USC traveled to Greenville for a series with East Carolina. ECU took the series convincingly. The Yardcocks managed just 7 runs on the weekend. The next week's series against rival Clemson didn't provide much in the way of encouragement. Clemson took the series, capping it off with a 19-6 victory at Carolina Stadium. At this point, I was beginning to wonder if the 'Cocks had what it takes to make it out of a regional, let alone a super regional.
USC got back on track (sort of) the next week versus Brown, but they needed an extra inning to outlast the Bears 6-5 for the sweep. It wasn't until the first week of SEC play that we got a glimpse of what team was capable of doing. USC swept Tennessee en route to a 13-game winning streak. The following week they took two of three from hot-hitting Auburn to move into the lead in the SEC East.
After a near sweep of SEC West foe, Mississippi State, USC faced Vanderbilt, a team that historically has been a thorn in the Gamecocks' side. USC had to gut out a win on Sunday in the rubber match. If you'll recall,gave USC 6.1 innings of work and helped give Ray Tanner his 1,000th career victory as a Gamecock. USC did not let up the next weekend against Drew Pomeranz and Ole Miss. They took two from Ole Miss before dropping the final game by a narrow 5-4 margin.
USC then traveled to Athens where they swept the Dawgs. Some late game heroics were need from freshman pitcher Ethan Carter, though. With the winning runners in scoring position, Carter managed to wiggle out of a jam and secure USC's fourth sweep of the season, second in the SEC.
The following weekend the Gamecocks took two of three from Alabama. USC posted its highest run total of the season - 20- in the rubber match on Sunday. That win secured the Gamecocks' 7th straight SEC series victory of the season, a school record. The streak was destined to end at 7, though, as the Gamecocks then traveled to Lexington to play Kentucky. In the final two games USC managed just 3 runs, and the 'Cocks lost their first SEC series of the year.
Rebound must have been the word on the team's mind. USC did just that the next week against Arkansas when they swept the Razorbacks in Fayetteville. That accomplishment set up a series with Florida for the SEC title. After losing the first two games to the Gators, the 'Cocks salvaged a modicum of dignity by taking the final game. However, they were unable to capitalize on any momentum that might have been built by that win. USC then exited the SEC Tournament by dropping consecutive games to Ole Miss and Auburn.
Next the NCAA announced the the Gamecocks would be hosting the Columbia regional. Bucknell, the Citadel, and Virginia Tech comprised the slate for USC. The 'Cocks seemed to struggle early against the Bison, but a long rain delay gave our players time to collect their thoughts as well as create the Avatar Spirit Stick about which ESPN talked throughout the NCAA tournament. After that, it was smooth sailing for the Gamecocks through the Columbia regional.
Then it was on to Myrtle Beach to take on the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. I may have questioned whether CCU deserved their national seed, but I never questioned their worthiness as an opponent. Even so, the Gamecocks took the series in two games. Blake Cooper and Matt Price let everyone know the USC pitching staff was the real deal in game 1, allowing just 3 runs. In game two USC's bats came alive in a preview of things to come. The 'Cocks outlasted the 'Chants in a 10-9 slug-fest. Freshman Christian Walker was the hero when he belted a 3-run homer to left field to put the Gamecocks up for good in the 8th inning.
Again, the Gamecocks tossed away any momentum that might have been gained by losing their first game in the College World Series to Oklahoma. Blake Cooper gave an outstanding effort, but hours worth of rain delays and a little bad luck did their part to help the Sooners edge the Gamecocks. Thankfully, Sam Dyson and the rest of the team rebounded to put an absolute shellacking on #1 overall seed Arizona State in USC's first elimination game. In the subsequent rematch versus Oklahoma, Blake Cooper was triumphant on just three day's rest. USC was down to its last out before Jackie Bradley, Jr. singled home the tying run. Brady Thomas would go o to drive in the winning run in that same inning.
Then, of course, came the two elimination games against Clemson. Michael Roth pitched a complete game 3-hitter in the longest outing of his life and his first start of the year. I can't say enough about this young man's performance. Suffice it to say, I think it will go down as one of the greatest pitching performances in the history of the College World Series. After the first win to even the season series with Clemson, USC took the final game behind a solid outing from Sam Dyson. USC had taken the season series versus the Tigers and advanced to the CWS Championship in one fell swoop.
Looking back, it may seem like a forgone conclusion that USC would beat UCLA for the right to call themselves national champions, but at the time it was anything but certain. Cooper once again pitched on just 3-day's rest on his way to a 7-1 victory, his 13th of the season. Michael Roth followed suit by giving USC 5 more innings the next night. This time the game was a lot closer. The Gamecocks left a total of 14 runners on base that night, but true to form, they pulled out the victory. In the bottom of the 11th inning Whit Merrifield singled home Scott Wingo to bring the University of South Carolina its fist national championship in a major sport.
Congratulations once again to this baseball team and the USC administration. It has been a joy to follow the Gamecocks this season and an absolute pleasure to cover them for Garnet and Black Attack. I think, perhaps above all else, this season is an example of the why you should never let others define the expectations you have for yourself. I may have been a doubter to start the season, but this team turned me into a true believer.