COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Ray Tanner gathered his players around him on the infield soon after clinching a spot in the College World Series.
“We didn’t start out exactly like we wanted,” Tanner told them.
But the two-time defending national champions always seem to end up where they want to be: in Omaha playing for a title.
South Carolina (45-17) wrapped up the NCAA super regional series with a 5-1 victory over Oklahoma on Monday, extending the Gamecocks’ record with their 21st straight tournament victory. It’s their third consecutive trip to the eight-team finals, 11th overall and sixth in Tanner’s 16 seasons in charge.
“He’s a magic man,” ace lefty Michael Roth said.
Tanner’s team has a chance to create a little more magic, too – it could join the powerhouse program of Southern Cal as the only schools with more than two consecutive CWS crowns.
And the Gamecocks did it with plenty of new faces. There were five players in Monday’s lineup that weren’t part of the team a year ago. Also gone are the last two College World Series MVP’s – former star outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and second baseman Scott Wingo.
Then the Gamecocks struggled to a 1-5 start in Southeastern Conference play, but that didn’t prevent returning players from lowering their sights when the year began.
“We knew we had a good group of guys,” closer Matt Price said.
That showed again in a game suspended Sunday because of heavy rain. Once things resumed Monday, South Carolina quickly took control to put away the Sooners (42-25).
Price got catcher Dylan Neal on a check-swing, called third strike to set off the latest celebration at Carolina Stadium.
The Gamecocks took advantage of two Oklahoma mistakes to build a 2-0 lead in the seventh. Chase Vergason’s two-run double put things away an inning later and gave South Carolina a 5-1 lead.
South Carolina opens CWS play Saturday against Florida, the tournament’s No. 1 seed and the Gamecocks’ SEC rival. The Gators were also the club that fell to the Gamecocks in the CWS championship series last summer.
The Sooners had been the last team to defeat the Gamecocks in NCAA tournament play, taking a 4-3 victory at the 2010 College World Series. Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway hoped his players could channel that memory this week at Carolina Stadium. Instead, the Sooners managed only one run and seven hits in two games.
“You look at their pitching staff and you wonder how you’re going to score,” Golloway said.
Oklahoma was trying to force a deciding third game, but reliever Steven Okert could not hold down the Gamecocks once things resumed.
The Sooners had their chances, though.
Tyler Webb (6-1) took over on the mound for Colby Holmes, who shut down Oklahoma on one hit through five innings Sunday. Webb promptly worked himself into trouble with an error and two walks to load the bases, but after an 11-pitch at-bat, right fielder Cody Reine flied out to right to end the threat.
That’s when the Gamecocks finally broke through off Oklahoma reliever Steven Okert. Connor Bright led off the seventh with a double into the right field corner. Tanner English followed with a bunt to first baseman Evan Mistich, who threw wildly to third attempting to get pinch runner TJ Costen. Instead, Costen ran home with the game’s first run.
English moved to third on Vergason’s sacrifice bunt and scored when Okert (9-8) threw a wild pitch to the left of catcher Tanner Toal to give the Gamecocks a 2-0 lead.
The Sooners’ last best chance came when Jack Mayfield and Garrett Carey walked to open the seventh. Golloway called for a hit-and-run but Mistich couldn’t make contact and Mayfield was easily thrown out at third by catcher Dante Rosenberg.
Moments later, Mistich followed with an RBI single off Price to draw Oklahoma within 2-1. But Price struck out pinch hitter Chase Simpson and got Caleb Bushyhead on a fly ball to left to end the threat.
South Carolina put it away with a three-run eighth, highlighted by Vergason’s two-run double to left center. All that was left for Gamecocks fans who returned from Sunday night was the countdown to Omaha – something they’ve grown accustomed to the past few years.
Price earned his 11th save of the season and 41st of his career, tying the SEC mark of Georgia’s Joshua Fields.
Once the final pitch to Neal was called strike three, Price smiled wide and waited for his teammates to pile on. The celebration wasn’t wild or excessive, not from a club which knows too well what it’s like to win with a national title on the line.
“Once we start the postseason,” Price said, “we just try and go out and win every at-bat and every pitch.”