COLUMBIA — In the beginning, they barely talked. South Carolina coach Ray Tanner tried to engage his freshman contributors in conversation, knowing the valuable roles guys like shortstop Joey Pankake would play on the youngest team Tanner had ever fielded. But the chats were one-sided, with a “yes, sir” and a head nod to Tanner’s questions.
Tanner intimidated them with his tough love approach and impatience, even as he told them, “Don’t get your feelings hurt.” His older players watched Tanner talk to a freshman in the dugout, then approached the kid after Tanner walked away, to make sure “that I didn’t mess them up for the rest of the game,” Tanner said.
It was all so much to process — the coach who demanded excellence, the back-to-back national championship flags beyond the outfield wall of their park that reminded them of expectations.
“They come into this environment and the flags are flying and they didn’t put the flags up,” Tanner said. “We had a lot of guys in there that were in question.”
While the Gamecocks might not add another flag this year, they would not be in their 10th NCAA super regional in the past 13 years without the development of their new players — Pankake, junior college second baseman Chase Vergason, pitcher Jordan Montgomery.
They all made a difference in USC’s 4-3 win over Clemson on Sunday, which clinched the regional for the Gamecocks, extended their NCAA-record tournament winning streak to 19 games, and meant they will host next weekend’s best-of-three series against the Virginia Regional winner, with a trip to the College World Series on the line.
The Gamecocks beat their rival by a run for the second straight day in part because, before the game, they did what their freshmen never had trouble doing. They listened. Hitting coach Chad Holbrook told them Clemson’s starter, David Haselden, would throw lots of strikes. “Let’s take some hacks early,” Tanner recalled Holbrook telling the players.
Pankake ripped Haselden’s second pitch off the left-field wall for a triple, starting a three-run first inning. Vergason added a run with a sixth-inning single, atoning for the lackluster base-running Saturday that resulted in him getting thrown out at home in the bottom of the ninth, when his run would have won the game.
Montgomery needed no more help. He allowed two runs in 62/3 innings, walked one batter and struck out six. With the lead, he could go after the Tigers more aggressively. He felt better about his fastball location after a strong start against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament helped him overcome the location issues that plagued him in his previous three starts.
“Vanderbilt was a big confidence booster, letting me know once I hit my spots, then I can get people out,” Montgomery said.
Junior Tyler Webb, who has a freshman’s reserved demeanor, threw 21/3 innings of two-hit, one-run relief, with closer Matt Price unavailable because he threw 68 pitches Saturday. Webb and Montgomery combined for 10 strikeouts and one walk, and retired the first batter of every inning.
And there was Webb in the dugout after the eighth, approaching Tanner, telling him, “I’m good. Don’t come get me.”
He had never done it before, but now his shell is breaking, as it has for the freshmen whose assertiveness was once so rare that Tanner vividly remembers a phone call he got at home in the fall. It was Montgomery, calling to talk summer plans. Tanner told him if he didn’t pitch a lot in the spring, he’d need to play on a summer team. “Coach, I’m going to pitch,” Montgomery said.
In the end — after the awkward, one-sided conversations and the 1-5 Southeastern Conference start that frustrated Tanner — the Gamecocks, young and old alike, watched Clemson’s Brad Felder hit a high fly to the warning track, with a runner on first in the bottom of the ninth.
Webb held his breath. The crowd roared so loud, right fielder Adam Matthews couldn’t hear center fielder Evan Marzilli deferring to him. But Matthews caught the ball easily. This young team had mimicked the past two, had won USC’s ninth straight one-run tournament game, had returned to the doorstep of Omaha.
As the Gamecocks converged in a celebratory huddle, the flags flew beyond the outfield wall. Nobody looked at them.