The finals of the 2012 College World Series are set to begin tonight at 8 p.m. EST between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Arizona Wildcats. College baseball is about to take center stage across the nation.
For the Gamecocks, a win this year will mean a return to the national spotlight.
They are on the verge of winning their third successive title. In 2010 they were able to knock off UCLA in two straight games. Then, in 2011, the Gamecocks were able to beat Florida again in two games.
Starting to see a trend?
While streaks are risky business when it comes to predicting the outcome of sporting events, it is hard to ignore the previous success this South Carolina team has had.
Experience plays a big deal when teams come into these situations—under the spotlight, facing big crowds and expected to up their game to the next level. Some relish the idea, and some crack under the pressure.
What can make or break those players is the cooling calm a head coach can bring over his bench.
By no means could you ever knock Andy Lopez, the head coach of the Wildcats. When it comes to success on the diamond, the nod has to be given to Ray Tanner of the Gamecocks—even if ever so slightly.
It is not just his stats that tell the tale, though they are impressive enough.
Consider that he has a winning percentage that has never dipped under .500 in all 16 seasons as coach at South Carolina. He is a two-time national champion and one-time runner-up, three-time National Coach of the Year, USA Head coach and has an Olympic Bronze Medal.
You can see that Tanner has put together a very impressive resume.
It is no wonder why he is able to lead his teams year after year to the finals.
Putting his stats aside, he has shown this year exactly what makes him a very good coach and why the Gamecocks are going to win the College World Series for their third successive time.
Before the 2011-2012 season began, there was doubt that the Gamecocks could return to the championship game for a third time in a row. They were faced with roster problems that included the moving on of five regulars in the lineup.
To make matters worse, the team suffered losses in five of their first six conference games.
No matter, as Tanner was there to turn things around and get his team back playing together.
This was once again shown just days ago when the Gamecocks lost 2-1 against Arkansas in the second game of the tournament.
Although Tanner said he is very proud of his team and the way they have battled through, he knows that, when it comes down to the finals against such evenly matched teams—the Gamecocks' record being 40-17 and the Wildcats at 38-17—it takes more than just talent, Eric Olson of The Associated Press (via The Times and Democrat) reported.
"We've got the chance to play in the finals a third time in a row. It's hard to wrap your arms around that. You just have to have some good luck and fortune along the way, a couple clutch performances along the way," Tanner said.
Coach Tanner said he recognizes the opportunity of playing in the finals for three years in a row, and is going to make sure the rest of the Gamecocks relish the opportunity they have.
He has helped them turn it around after their early loss in the series. That sort of adversity they overcame will help them in the finals.
Arizona did not make it into the College World Series last year, so they will not have the type of experience the Gamecocks possess.
Having gotten that early loss of the tournament out of the way in their second game, the Gamecocks have been playing do-or-die baseball for the last three games. They will be coming into this game knowing that they can win when everything is on the line.
Expect this team to play that way, too.
They will be showing that a good offense is a good defense. In order for them to win, their pitching will have to be stellar.
Or at least good enough to stop the Wildcats from showing their great offense.
Ranked fourth in the country in batting average at .330, the Wildcats also have seven players in the lineup hitting over .300, Loius Bien of SBNation reported.
Although they do hit well, it is not for power. Most of the time they hit for gaps, advance runners and get themselves into scoring positions, Eric Olson of the Associated Press (via The Times and Democrat) said.
Adding to the exceptional offense the Wildcats have, they also can bring a huge stud to the mound in Kurt Heyer.
Heyer has the most wins in the nation and sports a record of 13-2 with an ERA at 2.24. Although he is not starting Game 1 for the Wildcats, when they do bring him in the Gamecocks will be in tough.
If the Gamecocks pitching can keep the score low, in any of the games, going into the later innings, they may be able to put some runs up on the board once the relievers come in for Arizona, as they are not near as strong.
All the relievers on Arizona have an ERA of over 3.00, and this could be the key to the win. If the Gamecocks can get the starters, especially Heyer when he comes in, out of the game with enough time to put some runs up, they should be okay to take the series.
With Micheal Roth (9-1, ERA. 2.49) and Tyler Webb (6-1, ERA 1.58) speculated to start games two and three respectively—should the series make it that far—the Gamecocks will be able to bring in some serious stuff on the mound later in the series.
Some stuff the Wildcats may not be able to keep up with.
In the end, it is not about the last year or the year before that will define this team. Tanner said it is this game, this year, in the finals that they have to be thinking about, and not the past, Eric Olson of the Associated Press (via The Times and Democrat) reported.
"You really can't allow yourself to go there," Tanner said. "You just try to play the next game."
Nonetheless, any Gamecock fan can feel relief in knowing that Tanner will know what to do. He will know how to lead whichever team is fielded over the course of the series to another, and third successive, College World Series title.