Originally created 06/12/06

Clemson returns to Omaha



CLEMSON, S.C. - Herman Demmink heard the stories of Clemson's great teams, even joining the Tigers right after their last College World Series club in 2002 that featured San Diego Padres shortstop Khalil Greene and power hitters Jeff Baker and Michael Johnson.

For Demmink, though, June usually meant disappointment. As a freshman, it was Clemson's quick ouster in the NCAA tournament. The next year, it was the Tigers falling to Georgia in a regional championship. Last spring, Clemson was a game away from the CWS after winning its super regional opener at Baylor before dropping the final two to come up short again.

Finally, Demmink and his teammates, get to follow the trail of Clemson's best-ever ball clubs, reaching the CWS after its two-game sweep of Oral Roberts.

"It's almost like a promise from the coaches that if you come to Clemson, you're going to get a chance to go to Omaha," Demmink said. "Now that I'm at that point (and) I know I'm going to get a chance, it's really special."

That was evident from the players' joyous reactions when the game ended. They jumped around like school kids - unlike more subdued celebrations after taking the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and winning its NCAA regional - and rushed winning pitcher David Kopp to start a celebratory dog pile.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett starts every season with his team's eyes focused on Omaha. For the first time in four seasons, the Tigers have achieved that goal.

"It's almost surreal," Demmink said.

Leggett's latest group probably won't match up star-wise with his other CWS teams. The 1995 and 1996 teams featured major league standouts Kris Benson, Billy Koch and Matthew LeCroy. In 2000 and 2002, Greene, Baker and Johnson were key components.

If you're looking for a HEAD: player, it might be Tyler Colvin who was selected 13th overall in the major league draft by the Chicago Cubs this past Tuesday.

"I think this one is very satisfying," said Leggett, Clemson's coach since 1994. "These kids have bought into everything this year.... These kids have played very tough and hard for a long, long time."

Leggett wasn't the only one who expected much from the Tigers. The team was ranked No. 1 in the country before playing a game. A couple of mind-scratching stretches, though - swept in a three-game series at Virginia in March and losing five out of six in the middle of April - had Leggett and others wondering how far this team could go.

Everyone saw soon enough. The Tigers have lost only once in 25 games since April 22. They've had to rally back in some very big spots to do it.

In their regional championship game last week, Mississippi State wiped out the Tigers' lead to move in front 5-4 through six innings. But Clemson came through with four runs to move onto the super regional. What the Tigers did to Oral Roberts this past weekend was downright unbelievable.

After Oral Roberts scored three runs in the top of the ninth off Clemson's closer to lead 8-7, the Tigers rebounded with Colvin's game-ending grand slam on Friday. Then Saturday, Clemson trailed 4-0 early and was still down 5-3 in the eighth when Stan Widmann's two-run single capped a three-run comeback for a 6-5 win that clinched the title.

The Tigers' strength might be its pitching depth.

When starter Jason Berken struggled after taking a knee to the face in an early collision at first base, P.J. Zocchi held Oral Roberts in check over five innings as the Tigers came back from a 4-1 deficit. Then Saturday, Clemson starter Stephen Faris also struggled in falling behind early. But spot starter Sean Clark worked 3 2/3 innings of three-hit ball that let the Tigers settle into the game.

Leggett says it's a resolve he has seen all year - and a quality he thinks carried the Tigers all the way back to Omaha.

"They've got some thick skin to them," Leggett said of his team. "At times, we've had to refocus them during the course of the season and every time, they've responded. They're a very special team to me."