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Morris: Focus on Omaha, worry about replacements next year

FACE IT, SOUTH Carolina better make it to the College World Series this year, or it is likely to be a long time between visits for Ray Tanner’s program.

Tanner will take one of his most talented teams into the regional at North Carolina State this weekend, a regional that is inarguably the weakest in the country. There is every reason to believe USC can sail through the regional en route to the College World Series.

Of course, those were the expectations we had for USC entering the season.

Just for fun, let’s go back and check on Tanner’s projections before the first pitch was thrown in February.

“We’ve had a consistent program. The last two years we haven’t been to Omaha and a majority of the guys back are upperclassmen,” Tanner said. “There is no question in my mind that going through fall practice there was an inherent presence that we need to do more. I don’t think there is any question that these guys want to make sure, if it is their last year at Carolina, that it ends in Omaha.”

The guys Tanner referred to were senior Phil Disher and juniors James Darnell, Reese Havens and Justin Smoak. The latter trio formed the nucleus of a recruiting class three years ago considered the best in the country. It was believed to be the foundation to Tanner again fielding teams that consistently knock on Omaha’s door.

With Darnell, Havens and Smoak, Tanner landed three high school recruits who turned their backs on millions of professional baseball dollars. The trio represented a rare trifecta in college baseball, a group that wanted to delay their professional careers for the sake of college glory.

Following three consecutive College World Series appearances, USC failed to get out of the Atlanta Regional in 2005. With the terrific trio coming in, USC fully expected a steady incline and return to the glory days of 2002 through 2004, if not every season at least during the third season of 2008.

It has not happened.

USC went 24-10, 21-13 and 22-13 against SEC competition from 2002 through 2004, followed by a 17-16 record against the league in 2005. Instead of taking off against the SEC when the trio arrived, USC merely leveled off. Its records against SEC competition the past three seasons are 17-19, 19-15 and 16-17.

Since all three of the current stars are expected to go in the first or second rounds of the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, it is reasonable to believe all three will sign professional contracts. Also, Disher will graduate from the program.

So, Tanner and USC face a rebuilding, or reloading, season or two beginning in 2009. The situation will not be as dire as that faced by Jack Leggett at Clemson this season, mostly because Tanner takes a different approach than Leggett in restocking his troops.

With second baseman Scott Wingo and center fielder Whit Merrifield expected to be the only two regular position players who return, Tanner has recruited four junior college infielders to fill holes. He will continue to convert middle infielders into outfielders as a way of filling those holes.

Nearly the entire pitching staff will return, and the possible influx of three or more strong high school arms could give USC an all-new look next season. The team that will play in a new ballpark could be a club that features pitching and defense and plays a lot of small ball on offense.

In addition, USC and Tanner will be forced to deal with a new set of rules beginning next season. There will be a greater need for Tanner and his staff to better evaluate talent because the NCAA has effectively eliminated USC’s practice of holding massive tryouts each fall. Walk-ons such as Disher are not as likely to emerge as star players in the future.

Roster limits will have a dramatic effect on USC, perhaps as much as any program in the country. There is good reason some on the NCAA baseball rules committee refer to the new roster limits as the “Ray Tanner Rule.”

The upside for USC is that Tanner has consistently brought in top-level talent, and the prospect of a new park and better facilities should only enhance recruiting. So, there is no reason to believe his team will fall like Clemson did this season. Instead, the question will be whether Tanner can quickly produce teams that are Omaha-caliber.

The truth is there is no proven formula for sending teams to Omaha. Undoubtedly, Tanner’s best team was in 2000. That club won 56 games, including 27 against SEC competition, yet fell one game short of the College World Series. His 2004 club was not outstanding, yet it came within one win of playing in the College World Series championship series.

You never know for sure. My guess is that if USC does not find itself in Omaha next month, it will be another two or three seasons before the Gamecocks position themselves to play in the College World Series again.