USC two wins away from Omaha
In the end, only Mother Nature could delay South Carolina’s march to the Super Regionals.
The Gamecocks needed two days to knock off the Liberty Flames by a score of 6-4, thanks to a rain delay that halted Sunday night’s contest in the fifth inning and forced the game to be postponed until Monday afternoon. South Carolina started strong with four runs in the first three innings and held a 4-2 lead before storms in the area halted action in the fifth inning. USC wasted no time adding to its lead the following day, plating two runs in the bottom of the fifth to put the game away. The win extended South Carolina’s record home winning streak in the NCAA Tournament to 27 games and means the Gamecocks will make their 11th Super Regional appearance in 14 seasons.
USC struck first on Sunday with an RBI single from L.B. Dantzler, his first hit of the regional. The Gamecocks added three runs in the third inning, including an RBI double from Dantzler, to increase their lead to 4-0 before Liberty answered with two runs in the fourth. There would be no more scoring on the day, as lightning and heavy rains forced the players from the field in the fifth inning. The game was suspended for over two and a half hours before finally being postponed.
The two hits from Dantzler were a welcome relief for USC fans, as the senior had struggled in Carolina’s first two regional contests. Gamecock head coach Chad Holbrook said after the game that Dantzler’s natural ability makes it hard to keep him off the basepaths.
“L.B. is very gifted,” Holbrook said. “He was 2-for-4 with a big hit and two RBIs and I’m mad at him for his two strikeouts. I just think he’s so dadgum good that he should never strike out.”
Dantzler said that he was happy to come through for his team, but was more concerned with getting the win.
“It’s a good feeling, but I’m fine with going 0-for-every weekend if we’re winning,” the senior said. “I’m just happy about the fact that we’re moving on.”
The game resumed Monday afternoon, with Carolina scoring two quick runs in the fifth inning, courtesy of RBI singles from Graham Saiko and Tanner English. The Flames made the home crowd nervous in the late innings, scoring in the eighth and ninth innings to trim South Carolina’s cushion to 6-4. However, USC closer Tyler Webb notched a strikeout with runners on the corners to close out the game and clinch the regional for the Gamecocks.
Six Gamecocks were named to the All-Tournament Team: Grayson Greiner, Joey Pankake, Tanner English, Graham Saiko, Jordan Montgomery and Kyle Martin, who was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
Martin, who found out that he would be starting in the regional on Thursday, said that his teammates helped him stay relaxed.
“They helped me stay loose, I’ve got to give credit to them,” Martin said. “I just tried to stay loose out, stay comfortable and do what I can.”
Unlike last year’s regional, the Gamecocks avoided a meeting with their archrival, the Clemson Tigers. Liberty defeated Clemson in the early game on Sunday to eliminate the Tigers. While countless fans were hoping for a matchup between the two in-state schools, Dantzler said that the players did not think about a potential game against Clemson.
“We were ready to play whoever,” Dantzler said. “I don’t think a lot of the hype that surrounds the rivalry affects the players as much as people might think. It’s kind of ironic that they’re the only team we didn’t play.”
The Gamecocks will take on either #1 overall seed North Carolina or Florida Atlantic next weekend. Although a matchup with the Tar Heels would likely be a stiffer challenge, Dantzler says the Gamecocks aren’t pulling for either squad to advance.
“I was telling [Gamecock second baseman] Max [Schrock] that I don’t think you can cheer for any team because, the moment you do that, they’re going to turn around and beat you,” Dantzler said.
While the Gamecocks don’t know who their Super Regional opponent will be, their head coach views both potential matchups as positive opportunities.
“We’re going to be thrilled and honored to play here,” Holbrook said, “and if we go to Chapel Hill, it will be a great experience for our players to play the number-one seed and we’ll have nothing to lose. It’s a win-win situation.”