COLUMBIA, S.C. – The days when South Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner's offseasons were mostly quiet are long gone. That's what happens when your program wins its first national title.
"After a while I would start my speeches with 'Repeat,' so I could save some time," Tanner said Friday. "It's been great. I love the situation we're in."
What's not to love, other than the calls from fans to bring another College World Series crown back to campus later this year. Tanner says that isn't something he and his players should worry about.
"All you can do is try and get in the postseason. Last year it was magical," Tanner said. "We played as good as we can play at the right time of the year. Certainly we know how difficult it is to repeat."
South Carolina, like programs across the country, opened baseball practice Friday. The Gamecocks' first game is Feb. 18 at Carolina Stadium against Santa Clara.
Star outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said players understand the pressure that comes with defending a title and are eager to do everything they can to put themselves in a similar position as last spring and summer.
"There's no slacking this season," said Bradley, the CWS most outstanding player.
Although there are several questions to answer.
Gone are the reliable pitching duo of Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson, who started 38 games a year ago. Right now, Tanner has sophomore Tyler Webb and Omaha hero Michael Roth penciled into the weekend rotation.
Outfielder Whit Merrifield, the team leader in hits and run scored, signed with Kansas City soon after returning from Omaha. Steady shortstop Bobby Haney is also gone as is fifth-year catcher Kyle Enders.
Roth earned himself a spot among South Carolina's all-time baseball heroes when he threw a complete game in beating rival Clemson 5-1 at the College World Series. Roth then pitched five stellar innings in the Gamecocks' clinching victory over UCLA, a 2-1 extra-innings win. This year, the lefty will be called on as South Carolina's likely Saturday starter.
Roth sees a similar fire as last year at this time and doesn't expect that to diminish.
"Right now, I'm happy with my role and I'm ready to help out the team any way I can so we can get back to Omaha," he said.
Two players who platooned last season, Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews, are expected to start in the outfield alongside center fielder Bradley.
Junior college transfer Peter Mooney takes over at shortstop, while Dante Rosenberg, Mooney's former teammate at Palm Beach State College, is among several players vying for the spot behind the plate.
There was chemistry and a bond, Tanner says, that lifted last year's players. That was evident at the CWS, where South Carolina lost its opening game and then ran off six straight victories to the title. Merrifield singled home Scott Wingo with the winning run in the bottom of the 11th, touching off a celebration like few others in school history. There was a standing-room only ceremony at the Colonial Life Arena once the team returned from Nebraska and a ticker-tape parade downtown attended by some 40,000, according to the city.
Tanner knows dwelling on memories like that might derail the focus for some teams, but not this group, which never got too high or too low during last year's championship season. Tanner wants his guys to call on those experiences during possible tough times ahead.
"I don't want to say this is just another season. It's the year after you won a national championship," Tanner said. "But our approach won't be any different. We're going to try and win games and hope you win enough to play at the end."