OMAHA—At different points during the NCAA tournament, UCLA and South Carolina were one out from elimination.
Starting Monday, the Bruins and Gamecocks will go head-to-head in the best-of-three College World Series Finals. Improbable? Considering the dire straits that both teams had to navigate over the last few weeks, the word “improbable” certainly applies to this championship matchup.
Two weeks ago, UCLA was on the brink of another disappointing super regional exit at the hands of nemesis Cal State Fullerton.
“Our backs were against the wall,” Bruins coach John Savage said Sunday. “We had two outs, nobody on against Cal State Fullerton (in the second game). We lost the first game. And Blair Dunlap battled and walked on a 3-1 count and (Tyler) Rahmatulla got into a 3-1 count and hit the two-run homer to extend our season. So we were literally one out away from being two-and-out in the super regionals. And I never sensed any quit. I didn’t sense any panic. I didn’t sense any, you know—the season being over. The guys just kept on battling.”
South Carolina’s brush with elimination was more recent. The Gamecocks fell into the losers’ bracket after dropping their CWS opener against Oklahoma a week ago. In a rematch with the Sooners on Tuesday, they trailed by a run in the 12th and were down to their final strike, when Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a game-tying RBI single, then scored the winning run two batters later.
“At some point, you know, you have to understand there is going to be a tremendous amount of adversity,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “And they’ve been through some and we’ve been through a lot. And maybe it’s a credit to both teams and the players that have been able to survive it and move on.”
But it’s not like these teams came out of nowhere. Both were ranked in the preseason—the Gamecocks were No. 10, while the Bruins were No. 23—and South Carolina climbed as high as fifth in the rankings on May 17, while UCLA peaked at No. 1 on April 12.
‘A Complete Turnaround’
The Bruins had been ranked No. 1 in the nation before—in the preseason in 2008—and failed to live up to their potential. In 2009, they started the season ranked 12th on the strength of their stellar recruiting class—which included future co-aces Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer—but they never recovered from a 2-10 start to the season and wound up missing regionals.
But those disappointments helped lay the foundation for 2010.
“We’d gone to the postseason three years in a row before last season, and then we lost a lot of players,” Savage said. “We were preseason ranked 1, I believe, in ’08, and we obviously didn’t meet those expectations. We lost a bunch of players to the draft. So we had a bunch of young players last year.
“(UCLA is) the athletic department with the most national championships in the country. You know, it’s obviously known for a basketball school with Coach (John) Wooden and everything he did at UCLA and all the national championships and all the NBA players, and then certainly football has a rich tradition as well, and softball and gymnastics and volleyball and golf. There’s all kinds of traditions there. And baseball never has won a national championship. Our players know that. I mean, every day we go in the Hall of Fame room and we go in the weight room and you see all the national championships, and baseball doesn’t have anything underneath it. So it’s I guess a gut check every time you see it. And knowing that you could do something special and put it up there.”
UCLA baseball’s own heritage includes big names from Jackie Robinson to Chase Utley and Troy Glaus, but its College World Series credentials are startlingly stark. The Bruins had made just two trips to Omaha before this season and had never won a CWS game.
In the fall, Bauer said, the players began talking about building a new tradition for the program. They started working with renowned sports psychologist Ken Ravizza—a Cal State Fullerton professor—on improving their mental toughness and putting past disappointments squarely behind them.
“There was definitely a whole new mindset,” Cole said. “We tried to create a new identity for our team after last season. We’ve been working a lot with Ken Ravizza, who has helped us out quite a bit. We kind of got together and bonded as a team. There are no individual players on this team. Everybody is a part of the Bruin baseball. We tried to establish a tough mindset, a no-quit mindset. We’re hard workers. We put in the time and effort, and we’re excited to play here and just have this opportunity. And it’s been an unbelievable experience, just a complete turnaround—180 degrees from last year.”
South Carolina’s transformation wasn’t so dramatic—no culture change was necessary. The Gamecocks’ baseball tradition has been firmly established for years, and Tanner’s program has been a model of stability. Heading into 2010, the Gamecocks had won 40 or more games in 10 straight seasons; they were one of just seven schools to make at least seven super regional appearances in the last decade and one of just eight schools to make regionals every season in the decade.
But South Carolina had its own disappointments to vanquish. The Gamecocks had not been to Omaha since making three straight trips from 2002-’04. Stars like Justin Smoak, Reese Havens and James Darnell played their entire collegiate careers in Columbia without ever reaching the College World Series.
But while those teams were built around power bats and defense, the 2010 Gamecocks are built around pitching and defense. It turns out, that’s a winning formula in baseball—even in the hitter-happy Southeastern Conference.
Still, there were plenty of times this season that South Carolina’s offense looked like it would torpedo the team’s postseason chances, no matter how good it was at run prevention.
“We went through a period of time where we really did have trouble scoring runs,” Tanner said. “We weren’t giving up a lot and we were playing good defense. But we took the mentality that, you know, we’ve got to win some games late. We’re going to have to win some close games. We’re going to have to get a big hit. We’re going to have to bloop one in or make something happen. We played like that a lot, certainly going down here to the last pitch and the season being over, and we were able to survive that.”
After the Gamecocks scored just one total run in an 0-2 showing at the SEC tournament, Tanner expressed frustration with his team’s offensive approach and promised the team would work hard in two-a-day practice sessions over the next three days. The goal was to get his hitters to be more aggressive.
“It was a tough time for our team,” junior outfielder Whit Merrifield said. “But I think it just shows the character of this team. We’re a team that never gives up and never quits. And after we got done with the (SEC) tournament we came back and we had some two-a-days, and it wasn’t the grueling two-a-day. We were very energetic and very excited about the opportunity at hand. And we knew we had a lot of season left.”
Maybe that 0-2 showing in the conference tournament was the best thing that could have happened to the Gamecocks. Their extra work in practice paid off, as they scored nine or more runs in five of their next seven games, including all three games in the Columbia Regional.
After slugging their way past Coastal Carolina in super regionals, Merrifield, Bradley, Christian Walker and South Carolina’s other stars found themselves in a place their South Carolina predecessors never got to experience: Rosenblatt Stadium. Now they’ll try to do something no Gamecocks team has ever done.
“At the beginning of the fall, we set out to get here, but we didn’t set out just to get here. We wanted to do something that our university has never had, and that’s a national championship,” Merrifield said. “We’re in position now, and we know we’ve got to play really well to beat a great UCLA team. But our team is excited for the challenge.”