COLUMBIA -- Seniority has no priority in Ray Tanner's guide to success.
The second year University of South Carolina baseball coach is just as likely to put the fate of his team in the hands of a freshman as a four-year starting senior. Tanner's `the future is now' philosophy has breathed new life in the Gamecock program that has been stagnant for 13 years.
Heading into Saturday's Southeastern Conference game with Georgia -- a 3-1 Bulldogs win -- South Carolina was ranked No. 8 in the nation, had a 31-7 overall record and was second in the SEC East with an 11-4 record. By interweaving seniors with powerful bats and consistent freshmen pitching, the Gamecocks are off to their best-ever SEC start.
"Our weakness in past years has been pitching and the freshmen knew they would have responsibility put on their shoulders," senior catcher Ryan Bordenick said. "They've really put it upon themselves and stepped it up."
While Bordenick and fellow senior Derick Urquhart have combined for 21 of USC's 72 home runs this year, it has been the pitching of freshman Kip Bouknight that has led the Gamecocks' resurgence. The Brookland-Cayce product tied a school record Friday when he earned his eighth win with a 14-4 complete-game victory over Georgia.
Bouknight (8-0) equaled the mark shared by Jason Haynie and Mike Cook and has established himself as the ace of Tanner's staff with a 2.41 ERA and 56 strikeouts. South Carolina pitching coach Jerry Meyers knew freshmen would have to contribute this season if the team was to better last year's record (33-24, 13-17 SEC).
"I don't know if we expected it, but we needed it," Meyers said. "We knew we were going to have three or four freshmen that were going to have to pitch a lot. Kip's the one that's stepped up the most and gotten the job done."
The Gamecocks have adopted Tanner's creed and his aggressive nature. They feel they have the team that will return South Carolina to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., a place it's been absent from since 1985. Former coach June Raines guided USC to Omaha five times between 1975 and 1985, but since joining the SEC in 1992, the Gamecocks only have earned two NCAA regional berths.
"It's a completely different attitude," Bordenick said. "He's (Tanner) a more aggressive coach. Coach Raines was a great coach, but he had a more relaxed attitude and unfortunately some guys took advantage of that freedom and didn't work as hard as they should have.
"Coach Tanner says `Do it my way or I don't want you.' We feel we have the talent and capabilities to play with anyone in the country to make it to Omaha."
Urquhart has witnessed the lean years along with Bordenick and said Tanner has the Gamecocks primed for another NCAA berth by demanding the most out of each player.
"He does a great job of getting the best out of each person," Urquhart said. "He does a great job psychologically getting you prepared.
"For four years we've been trying to work our way into a regional, to get an opportunity to play in the World Series. We couldn't ask for anything else right now. A lot of things are going our way."
Tanner took seven of his N.C. State teams to NCAA regional play by stressing the importance of team baseball, the same strategy South Carolina has risen in the national ranks with.
"We're not dominating in any part of our game," Tanner said. "We play solid defense, we hit some home runs and we pitch consistently. The fact that we have a well-balanced team has given us the opportunity to win some games."
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