COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina left this year's College World Series a little earlier than it wanted. But, it returned home Wednesday with something almost as important as a title - the belief its second-straight trip to Omaha won't be its last.
"I think we do have what it takes to make it three" in a row, said Aaron Rawl, who will be a junior next season and likely to fit into the Gamecocks' starting rotation. "We have a lot of great players coming in plus a lot of veterans. We should be just as good and get there next year."
South Carolina's season ended at Rosenblatt Stadium with its second loss to Stanford. While the Gamecocks didn't match up well with Stanford on the field, they think their program equals any other.
"We're trying to build a perennial powerhouse," said catcher Landon Powell, a senior next season who's returning to the Gamecocks. "We want to be like the Stanfords and Texases who get there every year. If we can do that, that's great."
And it was especially impressive this year.
South Carolina (45-22) struggled through a so-so first half and looked in danger of missing the Southeastern Conference's eight-team tournament, and the NCAAs.
That, said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, would've been a huge disappointment at a critical time for his program.
"I didn't want to come back ... with a team that didn't make it to the tournament and didn't make the postseason," Tanner says. "I wanted it to be a team that would be able to compete."
The Gamecocks found themselves down the stretch. The pitching staff, led by ace David Marchbanks and Steven Bondurant, kept the team in games. The offense finally found its stroke and South Carolina returned to the CWS.
Tanner won't say whether the Gamecocks are up there with the game's best. Making the CWS is a yearly goal, but the coach knows it's crazy to guarantee the College World Series each June. "But we should be an NCAA team every year," Tanner said after the Stanford loss Tuesday.
For South Carolina, next year could be as good as ever.
The Gamecocks lose their top two hitters - and left side of the infield - in third baseman Brian Buscher and shortstop Justin Harris. Powell, who swung a hot postseason bat, said again Wednesday he will be back for his senior season and look to improve on a down offensive year - he had just 10 homers and 61 RBIs.
Other key contributors on offense and in the field should be infielders Kevin Melillo and Bryan Triplett, and outfielders Steven Tolleson and Michael Campbell.
If Marchbanks, the SEC's pitcher of the year who was a seventh round pick of the Florida Marlins, returns for his senior year, it could turn a solid staff into a great one.
Matt Campbell, a sophomore with a nasty curve, had the best outing at the CWS when he held LSU to two hits in 5 1-3 innings in South Carolina's only win. Sophomore Cliff Donald and freshmen Conor Lalor and Zach Reeves could be the ones to step up next season.
Bondurant, a 15th-round selection of Oakland who plans to sign soon, said the problems players overcame this year should serve them well the next few years.
"This year, we've had some guys step up that didn't have unbelievable years last year," Bondurant said. "We have some players that are young this year who'll be great next year."
That could put South Carolina baseball in a whole new light.
"A lot of people are going to start looking at us as a baseball school," said Rawl, the right-hander who started and relieved this season. "If we keep doing what we've done, it will put us in the national spotlight."
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