A PALL HUNG OVER USC’s baseball stadium a week ago after the Gamecocks’ upset loss to Rhode Island. By losing that first-round game in their own NCAA tournament regional, the Gamecocks were on the verge of being kicked out of the playoffs after they had barely started.
Another loss, and a season once filled with great hope would be over. Another loss, and the team’s loyal but restless fans would grumble more. Another loss, and the team would miss the chance to play the winner of Clemson’s regional, which most assumed would be the archrival Tigers.
But as they have done all season, the Gamecocks smacked adversity with a baseball bat. Players who by all accounts work hard, work together and believe in one another simply decided their season wasn’t going to end so soon.
Despite their determination, the task was daunting. Historically, teams that lose the opening game of a regional have a 7 percent chance of coming back to win the regional. To beat those odds, the Gamecocks would have to win four straight games.
In the first one, the Gamecocks and Duke were tied at 2 when seldom-used catcher Hunter Taylor drove in the go-ahead run by bouncing a ball off the third-base bag. The Gamecocks won 4-2.
That hit seemed to spark the team. During the next three games — one against Rhode Island and two against UNC-Wilmington — the Gamecocks scored 43 runs and allowed just 8.
“We’re just a real hard group to beat, both mentally and out on the field,” said USC’s Alex Destino, an outfielder and designated hitter. “I love my team to death.”
Chad Holbrook, USC’s head coach, said the team has “some selfless players that have represented the jersey the right way.”
Examples of that selflessness were bountiful during the past three games:
▪ Tyler Johnson, a relief pitcher all season, started Sunday night and pitched all nine innings. He was named the regional’s most valuable player.
▪ DC Arendas, a gifted infielder who has struggled as a batter, was forced into action when third baseman Jonah Bride was ejected in the Sunday afternoon game. During the next two games, Arendas had six hits in at eight bats and scored five runs.
▪ A school of pitchers with weary arms — Taylor Widener, Josh Reagan of Lexington High School, Clarke Schmidt and Braden Webb — combined Tuesday afternoon to limit UNC-Wilmington to five runs. By the way, UNCW’s team batting average this season ranked in the top 10 nationally.
▪ John Jones, the early season star who was later benched during a deep slump, doubled in two runs in the ninth on Tuesday to kill a late rally by UNC-Wilmington.
The contributions of those players — plus the play of regular stars such as outfielder Gene Cone of Spring Valley High School and shortstop Marcus Mooney — epitomize teamwork.
The Gamecocks’ togetherness and mental toughness have now powered them to the Super Regional round, where 16 teams will compete to play in the College World Series. The teams will be paired in eight best-of-three series around the country.
USC’s success this season is vindication for Mr. Holbrook, the fourth-year coach who has drawn the ire of some fans. His greatest sin seems to have been following the legendary Ray Tanner, the current USC athletics director who won national championships in 2010 and 2011 and played in the national championship series in 2012.
Mr. Holbrook’s teams have not matched that level of success — yet. In fact, USC missed the playoffs altogether in 2015. But after last season, Mr. Holbrook promised a turnaround.
He was true to his word, winning the SEC East and inching the Gamecocks ever so close to Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series.
The next step is the Super Regional. The Gamecocks — as expected — will play a team wearing orange. Unfortunately, it won’t be the familiar orange. Clemson — which won the ACC tournament championship under first-year coach Monte Lee — lost to Oklahoma State in the Tigers’ regional.
The good news is that the Super Regional will be played in Columbia at Founders Park, where around 8,000 USC fans are expected to cheer for the Gamecocks beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Last Saturday, few people would have believed that South Carolina would still be playing a week later.
Fortunately, those few included 27 Gamecock players — who proved once again that just about any challenge can be met with effort, teamwork and togetherness.