South Carolina's Recent Success Is Hard To Beat
OMAHA—The first College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha ended with South Carolina outfielder Jackie Bradley squeezing the final out in center field. It was a routine play, and Bradley handled it in routine fashion—right down to chucking the ball into the stands, rather than keeping it.
Making winning routine is what makes South Carolina unique, and no school ever did it better, as the Gamecocks set records with a 10-0 postseason, 11 consecutive College World Series victories and 16 straight posteason wins.
South Carolina didn't have the most talent in the College World Series field, but it had more than enough and never took winning for granted. In winning its second straight national title, South Carolina showed a toughness and an ability to make championship-winning plays seem routine.
The word "clutch" has fallen into disfavor in the game during this Information Age, but clutch is the right word to describe how coach Ray Tanner's team played all season. It stemmed from an insistence on focusing on every game, every play, to build a champion.
"I never think about, well, we're good enough to go win the whole thing," Tanner said. "Let's just try to win the next game. I talk about what we've got to do today. And that's enough . . . You make plays. You get a little luck shining on you and it works out for the best. And that's what happened for us."
Playmaking ability and good fortune, as well as fantastic coaching and talent, made South Carolina just the sixth school in Division I history to produce a repeat champion. That elite company includes Texas (1949-50), Southern California's dynasty from 1970-74, Stanford (1987-88), Louisiana State (1996-97) and Oregon State (2006-07).
That's the short list of the best champions in CWS history. Other nominees would include Arizona State's 1965-67-69 title run, teams that featured the likes of Sal Bando, Rick Monday, Lenny Randle and Larry Gura; Cal State Fullerton's 1995 club, a Mark Kotsay-led club that went 57-9 against a brutal schedule; and Miami's dynasty of the 1990s, which went to the CWS every year but one from 1994-2001 and won titles in 1999 and 2001.
Hard To Top Trojans
It's difficult to compare teams over eras, but the Trojans' dynasty still stands alone at the top of the college baseball heap. Rod Dedeaux's clubs won five straight championships, beating the likes of Arizona State's 60-4 club in 1972, Dave Winfield and Minnesota in 1973, and spanning the wood-bat/no DH era and the start of the metal bat/DH era in '74. Those Trojans were loaded with future big leaguers as well, such as Rich Dauer, Fred Lynn, Roy Smalley and Steve Kemp.
The Gamecocks jump into the argument for No. 2. They're ahead of the last repeat champ, as Oregon State's 2007 club went 10-14 in Pacific-10 Conference play before getting hot in the postseason. South Carolina's consistency throughout 2011 gives it an edge.
Miami won two titles in three years in the midst of seven Omaha trips in eight years, spanning the 48-team and 64-team tournament era. Both championship winners were undefeated in Omaha, but I'd actually argue the 1998 team—the one with Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff and Jason Michaels, among others—was the best of that run.
Louisiana State's repeat titles included vanquishing Miami in '96 on the Warren Morris home run, and LSU's dynasty surpasses Miami's with five titles in 10 seasons. Like South Carolina, LSU had to overcome a Southeastern Conference foe to repeat, beating Alabama in 1997, and coach Skip Bertman's Tigers also won under evolving rules. They won with pitching in '91 and '93, with "gorilla ball" in 96-97, and then again with a 64-team tournament and less lively bats in 2000. The Gamecocks won with the old bats last season and the new bats—and new ballpark—this season.
In some ways, what South Carolina did was more difficult, with the best-of-three finals and opponents that could go down as two of the more talented teams not to win titles. UCLA, the 2010 foe, had two pitchers who went on to be the No. 1 (Gerrit Cole) and No. 3 overall picks (Trevor Bauer) in the 2011 draft, though the Gamecocks avoided Bauer in the finals. Florida's team has yet to write its final chapter, with five rising juniors who were All-Freshman honorees in 2010. If the Gators win a title next season, South Carolina's title will look that much more impressive.
South Carolina had 11 players drafted, though just two in the first 10 rounds, so it wasn't an exceptionally talented club. In fact, three scouts said a week after the CWS that they thought South Carolina might have trouble even getting a regional bid when they saw the team in February and March.
Well, that proved to be no problem. And the Gamecocks made winning a national championship look fairly easy as well. Putting them into historical perspective may require time, but with just a bit of hindsight, they already look like the best team of the 64-team era, dating from 1999, and one of the top five teams in college baseball history.