South Carolina makes its own history in final CWS at Rosenblatt
S. Carolina's first major title fittingly came against the other USC's top rival
S.C. came from behind to win, indicative of a back-against-the-wall season
Long-time S.C. fans can rejoice as the final champs at Rosenblatt
OMAHA, Neb. -- There is confusion at times between two schools that both bill themselves as USC.
It's always been easy to distinguish one from the other in baseball, however. The one on the West Coast always has the trophies.
South Carolina's 2-1 win Tuesday night in the College World Series finals delivered the Gamecocks' first major national championship -- in baseball and any other sport. Interesting that it came at the expense of UCLA, crosstown rival of the other USC, the one with 12 national championships.
"I don't know how to feel," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said moments after Whit Merrifield's RBI single in the bottom of the 11th set off a celebration. "I've never been in this situation before.
"I'm off the ground right now."
After winning the opening game in the best-of-three series Monday night, South Carolina may have been out of its comfort zone, unaccustomed as the Gamecocks were to playing without a wall against their backs.
"I don't know if we we're ever comfortable," said Tanner. "We play uphill a lot."
There were times this season that Tanner had to wonder if this team was championship caliber.
South Carolina struggled offensively much of the year. Never was that more apparent than in the SEC Tournament, where the Gamecocks were sent home after two games that produced just one run.
Somehow, South Carolina reached Omaha, with characteristics the people here appreciate: hard work, determination and resilience.
"That's just the kind of team we are," said Merrifield after joining his teammates in a victory lap around the field with the trophy.
So losing their first game of the CWS against Oklahoma didn't deter the Gamecocks. It simply enabled them to join USC (in 1998) and Oregon State (in 2006) as the only teams in the past 30 years to win the championship after losing their opener.
Actually, it must have put the Gamecocks at ease Tuesday night when they fell behind 1-0 as UCLA scored a fifth-inning run.
Tanner turned to the team in the dugout about that time and said calmly: "This is who we are. This is the kind of games we win."
But Tanner acknowledged afterward it wasn't the easiest situation.
"It looked very difficult, certainly," he said. "UCLA's pitching staff is one of the best in the country. We just kept battling and found a way."
South Carolina pitching coach Mark Calvi cobbled it together, turning again to lefthander Michael Roth -- who tossed a complete game five days ago in his only start of the season -- to get things started. Relievers Jose Mata, Tyler Webb, John Taylor and Matt Price, all of them pushed the past two weeks, to hold the Bruins scoreless the rest of the way.
"We were on fumes," said Calvi. "I don't know how we did it."
The Gamecocks were in must-win situations four straight games after losing their opener. They were down to their last strike in one of the elimination games before center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the series' Most Outstanding Player, stroked a single that rallied them to a win.
"As long as you keep getting your tying run to the on-deck circle, you feel like you've got a chance," said Tanner. "You don't give up a lot of runs, and you're within striking distance. And we've played like this a lot this year.
"We haven't been sitting out front with a big cushion in a lot of games. We sort of play this way. We like to be up two or three. ... A lot of times we have to win late. We're certainly not a come-from-behind team and having to win games from the fifth to the ninth, but that's who we are."
It reflected the personality of their coach, a calming influence regardless of what the situation was out on the field. He will be celebrated now, even if he is from the state to the north
Tanner, who grew up in Benson, N.C., was coaching at his alma mater, North Carolina State, when he was convinced to come to South Carolina in 1996. And he did need convincing.
Among those in Tanner's ear was former LSU coach Skip Bertman, who guided the Tigers to five national championships. Tanner served as an assistant coach under Bertman on the 1995-96 USA National team.
The SEC is annually regarded as the top conference in the nation. Despite enjoying such a lofty reputation, however, the conference had but seven national championships to show for it -- and six of them were from LSU (Georgia won the other).
Tanner, who earlier this season won his 1,000th game, was among those who had fallen short, losing in the 2002 championship game to Texas.
He, and all the other South Carolina faithful, were numb to finally scaling the summit.
"This is the dream of dreams," said South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman, surveying the joyous scene from along the third-base line. "This is what you work for."
A South Carolina championship will be much more noticeable on the Columbia campus than would one in Westwood.
This is the school's first major national championships, the Gamecocks' trophy case previously occupied only by a women's outdoor track & field title won in 2002.
UCLA, on the other hand, leads the nation in national titles. An entire room is dedicated to the Bruins' hardware. There are 106 titles from 16 sports, although none from the baseball team.
South Carolina knew the feeling. The Gamecocks had finished runner-up three times here, making some of their fans wonder if it was ever to be.
"Where people weren't sure, now they can say, 'We can,' " said Hyman. "It's for the state. It's for the university. It's for the athletic department.
"It says we can do this."
After the national championship trophy was presented and other postgame ceremonies conducted, highlights from the past 61 years were played on the Rosenblatt scoreboard's video screen. A trumpeter followed with a mournful rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." Afterward the stadium marquee -- Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium -- went dark for the last time.
"Opening ceremonies as I was sitting there," said Tanner, "I was thinking, 'Wouldn't it be nice to play in the last game and win it here in Rosenblatt.'
"We're going to be in the history books for a long, long time. I know the new stadium is going to be tremendous, but this is history, and we're going to be part of that for many years to come."