OMAHA -- Ray Tanner likes to remind his team that nothing comes easy in this game. He reminds them almost every day. "This game is hard," the South Carolina manager likes to say. "It'll humble you, it'll devastate you, and it'll crush you. If you allow it to."
They are the two-time defending champs, but nothing has come easy for South Carolina this year. They dropped seven of their first 10 conference games. During the regular season they scratched out one-run wins 28 times. And in Omaha, they had to win three straight games, over two days, to reach the finals against Arizona. It has been a long, strange, exhilarating and grueling year for Ray Tanner's young, talented team.
On a very hot Sunday night in Omaha, in a packed house at TD Ameritrade Park, in Game 1 of the College World Series Finals, the Gamecocks had a bad night. They were outplayed in nearly every way in a 5-1 loss to Arizona. The Wildcats' sophomore pitcher Konner Wade dominated over a dazzling nine innings --- "He had a lot of good sink on his fastball," South Carolina centerfielder Evan Marzilli said after the game --- while South Carolina starter Forrest Koumas didn't make it past the third inning. The Wildcats made dazzling plays in the field; the Gamecocks made two errors, one costly. And the Wildcats had all the big hits, none bigger than Robert Refsnyder's two-run home run in the first inning.
Soon after the game Ray Tanner gathered his team together in the losing locker room. And he reminded his players, one last time: This was never going to be easy.
It has been The Big Story of this year's College World Series, the Gamecocks' pursuit to become only the second team in the 66-year history of the CWS to win three straight championships. The pursuit has followed the Gamecocks everywhere this season, it has become such a big story that even the teams South Carolina play are in awe of what they could accomplish. "Looking at a fan's perspective, just the whole story of a three peat, it's just amazing to be in the position they are," Arizona's Refsnyder said on the eve of the finals. "As a fan, I would definitely be rooting for that, because that's an unbelievable feat."
He then added, "But the weird, quirky fan who wants to see Arizona win --- I'll take that fan."
Yes, the Wildcats, who are in pursuit of their fourth championship, are chasing history, too, though it's taken a while for Omaha to take notice of the kids from Tucson. At the start of the CWS, Refsnyder was taking a stroll through the Fan Fest carnival outside of TD Ameritrade Park. Refsnyder came upon a t-shirt stand inside a tent. "It was crazy in there," he recalled. "I think every single team T shirt was sold out. Except for ours. I think I was the only one who bought one."
That was two weeks ago. That was before Omaha got to know Refsnyder, the gifted junior hitter who was taken by the Yankees in the fifth round of the MLB draft; before they got to know Alex Mejia, the dazzling junior shortstop with the golden glove; before they got to know Andy Lopez, the charismatic, longtime skipper who has now led three different schools to the CWS.
All weekend long Tanner did his best to cast the Wildcats as the favorites --- "We're probably the underdog," he said, "We've been through the losers' bracket, we've played a couple extra games, and these guys are scoring 10 or 12 runs a game" --- but not many seemed to listen. "We've got a pretty good team," Tanner said, "but we're not the '27 Yankees."
On Sunday, Arizona showed that they are the most complete team in the country. The Wildcats made all the big plays: There was Mejia, the Pac 12 Player of the Year, making a spectacular diving stop deep in the hole beyond second, to start a key 6-4-3 double play in the first. There was Refsnyder hitting the big two-run home run in the bottom of the inning. TD Ameritrade Park is a graveyard for hitters, but the wind was blowing out, and Refsnyder's blast into the South Carolina bullpen in right field was the first opposite-field home run of the tournament. "I wanted to put a good swing on it," he said. "I knew if we got the team on the board right there, it would settle the team down so we could just go out and play good baseball."
There was Refsnyder, again, in the top of the sixth, this time gunning down Adam Matthews at third base with a laser throw to put an end to a potential late-inning rally. "I was surprised that Matthews decided to take the extra base," Refsnyder said. "The ball was hit relatively hard through the hole. I really wasn't expecting Matthews to go, but I thought he kind of hesitated, so I decided to let it rip."
And there was Konner Wade, adding to his legend (he's now the first pitcher in eight years to pitch two complete games in one College World Series) with a virtuoso performance, his fastballs clocking in at 91, 92 mph, and moving like badminton shuttles. "I just tried to work ahead of guys," he said. "I knew that they were a pretty aggressive team and they were going to try to take the extra base. So I tried to work ahead and get in counts that were favorable to me."
It was a good night for the Wildcats, who are embracing the role of party crashers. Before the game Lopez was sitting in the kitchen in the home clubhouse when he heard loud, strange noises coming from the locker room. "It was the loudest, goofiest group of young athletes I've been around in about 30 years," he says. "I sat there and went, wow, these guys are kind of loose tonight."
It was a bad night for the Gamecocks. But so much, of course, can change tomorrow, with South Carolina's Michael Roth (4-0 with a 1.34 ERA in a record 53 2/3 innings in the CWS) taking the mound in his CWS finale. South Carolina is one win from elimination --- but they are still only two wins from their three-peat.
And they always knew that it was never going to be easy.