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.
"This team stayed the course and was resilient," Tanner said. "We lost some close ones, but if you stay (around), sometimes it works out."
It's worked out again for South Carolina in the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks ran their record streak of tournament wins — set at last year's College World Series — to 21 with their two victories over Oklahoma, which was the last team to defeat South Carolina at the 2010 CWS.
Gamecocks star closer Matt Price called the first-time players "sluggish" at first, something English chuckled about at the postgame media session.
"But after they got a few games in, they started growing," Price said.
English thinks it was the just the getting-to-know-you process between the veterans the rookies.
"It took us a little while to get going and learn how to play with each other," he said. "We had to learn each other's personality on and off the field. Now it's like we're a family."
A family with the perfect head of the household in Tanner.
The longtime coach acknowledges he had made it hard for players in the past by being too hands on and in their faces at the wrong moments. Tanner doesn't let everything rest these days, but concentrates on teaching and instilling a feeling of fun among his players.
Last Friday before the super regional, Tanner insisted he had just finished his most fun practice of the season "because we're still playing," he said. "The alternative is not good."
Tanner has a knack these past few seasons of making the absolute right calls to keep South Carolina winning. He stayed with freshman Connor Bright at designated hitter on Monday when the second game of the series resumed from rain problems the day before. Bright delivered with a leadoff double as South Carolina took the lead for good with a two-run seventh inning.
"We don't know how he does it," Price said.
The Gamecocks open play at the TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday night against the tournament's top seed — and the team they beat for the title last year — in SEC rival Florida. Tanner said his young players have grown up a lot since fall practice because of their willingness to fit in and do things the South Carolina way.
"You don't just roll in here and have anything given to you," Tanner said. "You have to earn it."