With the start of the college baseball practice three weeks away, USC coach Ray Tanner is clearly looking forward to the 2010 season with a strong team returning.
Coming off one of the program's most successful decades, he can afford to look back with pride on the 10 NCAA tournament teams he coached from 2000 to 2009.
"When you have to step back and take a look at the body of work and the whole picture, what stands out is the consistency of the teams and the program," Tanner said. "I'm really proud of that. It's a great tribute to these outstanding players and coaches."
The very best of those players - led by pitcher Kip Bouknight and first baseman Justin Smoak - comprise The State's All-Decade team for USC baseball.
Bouknight got the decade started by going 17-1 in 2000 and winning the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's most outstanding player. Smoak's slugging on the back end of the decade left him as the school's all-time leader in home runs (62) and RBIs (207) after three seasons.
Along with a lot of other standout players, they propelled the Gamecocks to a record of 468-201, the most wins in any decade in school history and the fourth-most in the nation over that period behind Florida State, Rice and Texas. The .700 winning percentage, however, ranks slightly behind the 1970s teams (325-133-3, .708) and the 1980s (412-173, .704).
Tanner's 2000 and 2002 teams won SEC regular-season titles, while his 2004 squad won the SEC tournament crown. USC's 179-120 regular-season record in conference games over the decade was the best in the SEC.
Of the 10 NCAA tournament teams, seven made it to Super Regionals and three made it to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., with the 2002 team reaching the national championship game. The three CWS appearances matched the number set by the 1980s teams. Only four teams nationally had more Super Regional appearances in the decade.
"You'd always like to make more appearances in the College World Series, no doubt," Tanner said. "But we're in a program that's capable of winning a national championship. Is it easy to do? No, but we're at that level."
Tanner also acknowledged the coaching staffs. Four assistants from this decade have gone on to head coaching jobs: Jerry Meyers at Old Dominion; Jim Toman at Liberty; Monte Lee at College of Charleston; and Stuart Lake at Charleston Southern.
But it still comes down to the players, and USC's depth over the decade showed - especially in the infield and on the mound. From Landon Powell to the Killer B's to the triumvirate of Smoak-Havens-Darnell, Tanner saw his players succeed in the toughest conference in the nation.
During the 10-year span, 18 different players garnered All-America honors while 58 signed professional contracts. Enough stars came through the program that some top-caliber players could not crack the All-Decade teams at their respective positions, such as first baseman Yaron Peters, shortstop Steven Tolleson and reliever Chad Blackwell.
The final season of the decade also saw a move from the historic confines of Sarge Frye Field to the new $36-million stadium in the Vista. Tanner acknowledged the many great moments at the old field, but he also knows how much the new ballpark means to the continued success of the program.
"Leaving the Sarge was very hard for me. It was our comfort zone. It was a place where we were successful," he said. "But we were busting at the seams from a recruiting standpoint."
At the alumni game in the fall, Tanner told a gathering of players that it was their success that led to the construction of Carolina Stadium. Seeing them each year brings back the memories, too.
As for this top memory of the decade, he states there are too many to mention. But then he makes a point of bringing up the deciding game of the 2002 Super Regional against Miami at Sarge Frye Field. Trailing 4-1 entering the ninth inning, the Gamecocks scored five runs to pull out an improbable 6-4 victory which sent USC to the CWS for the first time in 17 years.
"That had to be one of the most special moments," said Tanner, who badly wanted to get the program back to Omaha after Super Regional near-misses in 2000 and 2001.
Entering his 14th season overall at USC, Tanner pondered the thought of making it to the end of this coming decade.
"If I didn't know that it's my 14th season, I wouldn't believe it. It's gone so fast," he said. "My job is one of the greatest in the country, maybe the greatest. I'd like to think that it (another great decade) is a possibility."
Reach White at (803) 771-8643.