The South Carolina baseball team has qualified for the past 10 NCAA tournaments, but the Gamecocks have not made a trip to the College World Series since 2004.
Since that time, their seasons have ended in the regional round three times (2005, '08, '09) and the Super Regionals twice (2006, '07). With an experienced team ranked No. 10 by Baseball America in its preseason poll, the Gamecocks again are primed for a postseason run.
Here's a look at 10 things that have to happen for USC to return to Omaha.
1. GET ALL THE KEY PLAYERS BACK
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Senior first baseman Nick Ebert (.321, 23 HRs, 72 RBIs), an All-SEC performer, remains academically ineligible, while center fielder Jackie Bradley (.349, 11 HRs, 46 RBIs), a consensus freshman All-American, is out for at least a month with a broken hand. Ace right-hander Sam Dyson is not full-speed yet after having offseason elbow surgery. He will be limited by a pitch count until he's ready to cut it loose, which might not be until the SEC schedule begins in mid-March.
2. FIND A CLOSER
In 2002, Blake Taylor compiled 21 saves, while Chad Blackwell posted 20 in 2004. In the past four seasons, no reliever has had more than seven saves in a season. Pitching coach Mark Calvi would like JUCO transfer John Taylor to be the new Blake Taylor, but he said he would settle for a bullpen committee with three guys saving seven games each.
3. HOST A REGIONAL AND SUPER REGIONAL
Of the eight USC teams that have played in the CWS, only the 2003 squad played on the road - at Atlanta - in a regional. And that team returned to Columbia for the Super Regional. The Gamecocks are 3-1 in Super Regionals played at home and 0-3 on the road. Sarge Frye provided a reliable postseason advantage, and USC would like to discover if Carolina Stadium can do the same.
4. ONE OR TWO STARTERS MUST REACH DOUBLE FIGURES IN WINS
The Gamecocks have not had a starter with a double-digit win total since 2004, when Aaron Rawl and Matt Campbell did it. All eight of the USC teams that reached the CWS had at least one pitcher win a minimum of 10 games. Dyson and Blake Cooper, who each won nine games last season, must be ready to step up.
5. HAVE A FRESHMAN DEVELOP INTO A STANDOUT PLAYER
Bradley showed he was ready to play right away last season, as Whit Merrifield did the season before, as Justin Smoak did in 2006, and as Drew Meyer did in 2000. That kind of player can galvanize a team by filling a spot that's a question mark to start a season. Keep an eye on third baseman Christian Walker and left-hander Tyler Webb.
6. WIN EITHER THE SEC EAST OR THE TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP
SEC success can serve as a springboard in the postseason. Winning in this league shows a team it's capable of beating any club in the country. The 2002 and '03 USC teams won the SEC East, while the 2004 team won the conference tournament.
7. HOPE SOMEONE HAS A SURPRISE SEASON
Remember Yaron Peters? The senior first baseman came out of nowhere to hit .377 with 29 homers and 95 RBIs to win SEC Player of the Year in 2002. That year also saw the unexpected emergence of senior outfielder Steve Thomas, whose career season included a .355 average with 13 homers and 70 RBIs. Senior catcher Tim Whittaker (21 HRs, 74 RBIs) had a similar breakout in 2001. Can senior first baseman Jeffery Jones work the same kind of magic this season?
8. FIND A HIGH-IMPACT JUCO PLAYER
Tanner does this pretty well, too. Ebert and catcher Justin Dalles fit the bill last season, as have Travis Jones (2007), Steve Pearce (2004), Brendan Winn (2004) and Brian Buscher (2002). The instant-offense approach of adding a veteran bat to the lineup can help put a team over the top. Utility player Robert Beary, who will start the season in left field, could be a candidate to fill that role.
9. OWN THE HOME FIELD
Winning at least 30 games at home seems to be an indicator of CWS potential. Eight teams have done it in USC history, and five of them reached Omaha. It happened in 1975 (30-1), 1982 (33-4), 1985 (34-5), 2002 (32-9) and 2004 (35-6). The teams (1974, 2000, 2001) that reached 30 wins but did not go to Omaha came close. The Gamecocks finished 26-9 in their first season at Carolina Stadium.
10. FIND OUT HOW GOOD ADAM MATTHEWS IS
Tanner says the sophomore outfielder has as much athletic ability as anybody he has coached. The White Knoll product has a potent mix of power and speed, but he got only 69 at-bats last season, when he hit .290 with five homers and 11 RBIs. If he gets 250 at-bats, it might be interesting to see what happens, and it might make the short-term loss of Ebert and Bradley more palatable.