Ten years ago, the South Carolina baseball team won its first ever College World Series Championship when Whit Merrifield singled home Scott Wingo to beat UCLA in the bottom of the 11th inning in the last game played at historic Rosenblatt Stadium. Head Coach Ray Tanner would guide the Gamecocks to another national championship in 2011 and reached the title series again in 2012 before hanging up the uniform to become South Carolina’s Athletics Director. Looking back at that magical night on June 29, 2010, Tanner takes pride in the impact it had on the athletics program, the University, and Gamecock Nation.
It’s been 10 years since the national championship and what really comes to mind is a variety of emotions. It’s about our fan base and a celebration. It’s about our players and a great accomplishment. It’s about the University and the tremendous pride that was shown in the return to Columbia.
It was a breakthrough with the opportunity for the University of South Carolina to be the last team standing and win a national championship.
When I look at back at that situation with Wingo on third base and Merrifield at the plate, before the pitch that was driven into right field, there was a bit of calmness that was starting to come over me, personally, because I just felt that we were going to be able to get that run home. Whether Whit did it, or the next man up, we were going to have an opportunity to win this game.
After Wingo touched the plate, it was like no other feeling that I had experienced. There was such a moment of clarity. The anxiety and tension that you go through as a coach in trying to be prepared, that all went away. I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a peacefulness. It was a special moment in our history for our team and our university.
We were the underdog in that series because of the powerhouse that UCLA had with its pitching staff and the position players. They were really good, but so were we! I knew our first game challenge with (UCLA pitcher) Gerrit Cole was going to be tremendous, but we had a guy by the name of Blake Cooper, who was lights out! He was nails. He struck out 10 in eight innings in that first game and only walked one. We got 11 hits off Gerrit Cole in seven. When you look at the box score, you think that’s not the way the script was supposed to be written. Sometimes Blake Cooper’s name gets lost in that series.
One of the reasons that we played in the national championship to begin with was because we had a team that didn’t make many mistakes. We played the game very clean. We would lose games from time to time, but it wasn’t that we lost, it was that the other team beat us that day. We didn’t lose a lot of games because of mistakes that we made.
We got big hits. We made big plays. We made big pitches. We didn’t beat ourselves very often.
If it wasn’t for the culture and the chemistry and the type of team that we had that went out and enjoyed playing the game and bonded so well together, I’m not sure if we would have been in the same position. We had good players, but those intangibles make a difference. They had fun. They could handle a loss. They could handle a win. They could handle a chewing from the coach! They had fun doing what they did, which resulted in winning a championship.
I didn’t fully understand what that win meant at that moment. Certainly, it’s a big deal. I didn’t realize the impact that it would have the next day with the return to Columbia, the parade, the number of people that showed up, and the number of people that were touched by it. I didn’t realize the long-lasting impact it would have on people in a great way. It was somewhat overwhelming to make such an impact.
That first year I had 127 speaking engagements, and I’m not someone who’s on the list of national speakers! It was a great time. I wore myself out doing that, but I had to do it because you may never do it again. Although, we did do it again (in 2011)!
It doesn’t seem like 10 years to me because I’ve been able to stay in touch with those guys.
Recently, when they were showing replays of the game on TV, I really didn’t watch. I would flip over every once in a while to see an inning or two. Even though I know the outcome, it’s like I don’t want to create that anxiety and tension again that existed in the moment. I see myself on television, and I look pretty calm, but there was a lot going on!
I had a team that, win or lose, I knew I was getting whatever they had. There weren’t going to be any excuses about anything. They were going to position themselves in the best way possible to come out of that as a champion. That’s a great feeling as a head coach to know that whatever happens, this is our best.