COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Ray Tanner wasn't sure when the year began if his team would have a chance to three-peat at the College World Series.
And with good reason, the Gamecocks had lost so much.
The past two CWS most valuable players — center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and second baseman Scott Wingo — were gone, along with regulars at third base, catcher, shortstop and left field. Players who accounted for two thirds of the team's RBIs in 2011 were not back this season.
"It was not going to be easy," Tanner said.
Nonetheless, they're back in Omaha.
The Gamecocks have a shot at a third straight national title, a streak of success only Southern Cal and its five consecutive crowns can claim in college baseball. South Carolina returns to the CWS thanks to significant contributions from its newcomers in the Gamecocks 5-1 victory over Oklahoma on Monday.
Freshman left fielder Tanner English had two bunt singles and an RBI. New second baseman Chase Vergason sealed the victory with a two-run double.
And they haven't been the only fresh faces to fuel this latest Gamecock run. Freshman shortstop Joey Pankake and junior transfer third baseman LB Dantzler helped South Carolina beat rival Clemson twice earlier this month to reach the super regional round.
"We had a good group of guys come in," English said of his fellow first-year players. "We were fortunate to have a great group of older guys to lead us and help show us the way to play ball here."
The newcomers had their struggles early.
The Gamecocks (45-17) looked to be a free-fall when they were swept in a series at Kentucky and lost two of three to Florida to start 1-5 in Southeastern Conference play.
Pankake had 16 errors his first 40 games, nearly equaling the 20 shortstops Bobby Haney and Peter Mooney made combined in 2010 and 2011.
The veteran pitching staff was also breaking in freshman catcher Grayson Greiner.
Tanner, who leans heavily on experience in his 16 seasons at South Carolina, had few cards to play and was even feeling the pressure at home as his 6-year-old daughter Maggie kept telling him they needed to go back to Omaha because it's so much fun there.
Gradually, the jittery newcomers became steadier, sure handed and ready to hit in the clutch. Pankake hasn't made an error in 19 games, Greiner was selected by play for the USA Baseball collegiate national team. And big hits were coming from everywhere in the lineup instead of just near the top where CWS veterans Evan Marzilli, Christian Walker and Adam Matthews were stacked.