COLUMBIA — Spend 57 games coaching a team, as Ray Tanner has this season with South Carolina, and you get a pretty good sense of its emotional barometer. He held two practices Monday as the Gamecocks prepare for Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against Manhattan, and between the practice sessions he stepped back and took stock of the vibe around his team.
“I got the sense going into the second practice that our older guys were like, ‘OK, we’re in charge here. Follow us and we’ll help you,’ ” Tanner said.
Juniors and seniors on this team like first baseman Christian Walker, left fielder Adam Matthews, center fielder Evan Marzilli and pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Price can barely remember what it’s like to feel anything less than confident in the NCAA tournament.
That is the obvious byproduct of winning two consecutive national championships, 21 of 22 tournament games over the past two seasons and an NCAA-record 16 straight tournament games.
And while nobody on this team will say the Gamecocks are playing with house money entering this tournament, they understand that this season, regardless of its outcome, feels different than the run for their first championship, and even the march for a repeat.
“Obviously, the pressure is not there,” Walker said. “The target is on our back this year. We’re not really sweating it that much. Other teams are going to play us with the intent to take down the reigning champs and all that.”
Since the College World Series began in 1947, one team has won more than two straight championships: Southern California, which won five straight from 1970-74, when there wasn’t nearly as much parity in college baseball as there is now.
Though the Gamecocks don’t have most of the players who contributed to the national titles, nobody in this tournament can match the success of their players who remain. Or, as Matthews put it: “You know what we’re capable of doing. We know what we’re capable of doing.”
Another trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series might not happen for this team.
Getting there three years in a row is difficult, though Tanner has done it before, from 2002-04.
“We’ve got to win a lot of games before we get back to Omaha,” Walker said. “At the same time, you do try to keep that goal in mind and try to let it give you some motivation.”
Said Matthews: “You want to think back (to the past two years). The times that we’ve had are something you’ll never forget. But you also don’t want to dwell on it and put much pressure on yourself to get back there.”
If they fall short of Omaha this weekend, in a regional on their home field, it would qualify as a major disappointment. USC is 50-8 in NCAA tournament games at home, including 31-5 under Tanner, with 19 consecutive victories dating to 2002.
Not only does the experience of the past two seasons have the Gamecocks relaxed as they prepare for this weekend’s games, Walker believes it will aid them during the games.
“It definitely helps a lot,” he said. “It gives us some sort of advantage, just because we know what to expect and we know we’ve been in just about every situation there is.”
Said Tanner: “I think the experience is a big deal. Does it guarantee you anything? Absolutely not. It’s got to count for something. Our guys think they’re pretty good. They expect to win. That’s important.”