Chad Holbrook has said on numerous occasions that team chemistry has as much to do with South Carolina’s turnaround this season as the talent upgrade.
That mental toughness and togetherness his club has shown all year was on display in the Columbia Regional as USC bounced back from a heartbreaking loss Friday night to win four straight games and advance to a super regional.
“We’re just a real hard group to beat, both mentally and out on the field. I love my team to death,” USC slugger Alex Destino said. “Even after we lost that game we were in the locker room, and we were like, ‘Guys, we’re not done.’ ”
After losing to Rhode Island 5-4 on Friday, the Gamecocks outscored their opponents 47-10 over the next four days to move within two victories of a return trip to Omaha.
Entering the 2016 postseason, less than seven percent of teams that dropped their first game in a regional went on to win the regional.
“We’ll remember more of the way we did it, losing the first game,” infielder DC Arendas said. “You really do see what your teammates are about when things are going south. And that’s not something that just happened this weekend. We lost some series during the year that we felt like we could’ve won. I think we just stuck together through it all.”
The Gamecocks had several unlikely candidates make big contributions in the regional, including Arendas and catcher Hunter Taylor, reserves who received minimal playing time during the second half of the season.
Both were named to the All-Regional team. Arendas hit .583 over the weekend with two homers, a double, a triple and five RBIs, while Taylor added three RBIs, including the game-winning one against Duke.
With Arendas and Taylor getting extended playing time, catchers Chris Cullen and John Jones and infielder LT Tolbert made contributions but received fewer opportunities than they were accustomed to.
Holbrook said seldom-used players being ready to step up and starters being benched and handling it well proved what he believed all along, that the Gamecocks have a special locker room.
“We have some selfless players that have represented this jersey the right way and not been about me. That’s been special to be around,” Holbrook said. “They’ve had that infectious attitude all year, and then they exhibited that Gamecock spirit all weekend after they lost the first one.”
South Carolina has a young team overall, but seniors Arendas and Marcus Mooney and juniors Gene Cone, Josh Reagan and Reed Scott are a big reason why USC is set to host its first super regional since 2012.
No one on this team has played in the College World Series. The current seniors lost to North Carolina in a super regional in 2013, failed to make it out of the Columbia Regional in 2014 and missed the NCAA tournament this past season.
The past struggles make the run the Gamecocks are on more sweet for the veterans.
“It’s really exciting for everyone, especially me and the rest of the seniors, everyone that has been here a while and lost on our home field to Maryland a few years ago, not making the postseason last year,” Mooney said. “When we have our backs against the wall we showed that we can do it.”
What: Best 2-of-3 series with winner advancing to CWS.
Who: Oklahoma State (39-20) vs. USC (46-16)
Game1: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: Founders Park