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June 17, 2010

Avatar Spirit Stick to the rescue for Omaha-bound USC

Known as something of a quirky bunch, South Carolina's baseball team reached a new level of eccentric June 4 as their season appeared to be in danger.

Known as something of a quirky bunch, South Carolina's baseball team reached a new level of eccentric June 4 as their season appeared to be in danger.

Trailing Bucknell in the middle innings of their NCAA regional opener, a storm cloud rolled over Carolina Stadium.

Minutes later, the game was halted because of lightning in the area. The players retreated to their locker room, but they didn't go alone.

No, there, they were joined by the "Avatar Spirit Stick" - a baseball taped to the sweet spot of a fungo bat.

Just before the delay, reserve outfielder Robert Beary had quickly fashioned the creation. He scampered around the dugout, getting all the players to touch it for good luck.

USC's hitters had been in a funk for about a week, including a dreadful 0-2 showing in the SEC tournament, and Beary, a bench player, decided to do something about it.

During the break in play, the Gamecocks took it a step farther. With the room lit only by candles, the team danced and chanted around the Avatar Spirit Stick in a ritualistic manner.

Coaches weren't allowed in the room. In fact, one ducked in, saw what was happening and immediately turned around.

Kooky as it sounds, USC emerged from the séance of sorts a renewed team.

The Gamecocks went on to score eight unanswered runs to beat Bucknell 9-5.

They scored nine runs the next night to beat The Citadel and 10 to defeat Virginia Tech and win the Regional in three days.

In their 5-0 run to Omaha, they've scored 8.4 runs a game -- a great distance removed from their one run in 21 innings at the SEC tourney.

"Whatever it was and whatever they did, it worked," assistant coach Chad Holbrook said. "It's brought us a little bit of good fortune. And the bat lives on."

Does it ever? The Avatar Spirit Stick was being waved around Sunday in the midst of the celebration after Christian Walker connected for the three-run home run that downed Coastal Carolina in the Super Regional.

You can be sure it's making the journey to Omaha when the team leaves this morning. It'll be in the Rosenblatt Stadium dugout, now in the care of seldom-used reliever Pat Sullivan, when the Gamecocks begin their College World Series on Sunday against Oklahoma.

"Baseball players are awfully superstitious," Holbrook said. "Anything that can stem the tide when things aren't going well. I think this is a loose bunch.

"Whatever makes them feel good, I'm for it."

This isn't USC's first Omaha run driven by an "enchanted" item.

The 2002 trip, the Gamecocks' first under Ray Tanner, was fueled by a doll the team adopted at Georgia. It was called the "life force" of that team.

Still, that group included three All-Americans, the SEC Player of the Year and four All-SEC selections.

This isn't that team.

There is talent, without question, but there's more to it than just that.

There's a certain chemistry, comedic and peculiar.

"They've enjoyed each other's company," Tanner said. "They work hard. They play hard. They all get mad at the same time. They let me pass at the same time. They've really been good to deal with."

They've remained that way even as Tanner has yanked guys in and out of the lineup, trying to get the best fits and matchups on an incredibly deep team.

The heart of USC's order was in flux throughout much of the season, only beginning to settle in the final month.

Nick Ebert, the 2009 leader in home runs (23) and 72 (RBIs), is a bench player right now. He hasn't started a game at first base since April 30.

Yet, Ebert is still fitting right in with the team's strange energy. He's still very much a part of it. Wondering last week what to do with his hair, he was split between shaving it off completely or getting a Mohawk.

Mohawk, it is. And Ebert responded with a pinch-hit RBI single in Sunday's win at Coastal.

"I think they've accepted that," Tanner said. "It's one thing for a coach to talk about being a team and putting the team first and giving those speeches, but it's another thing for a player to accept it. They've done that. For me, that's why they've been successful."

Even earlier this week, starters and backups were joking with one another during a particularly hot day on the practice field.

The players are constantly ripping on one another, keeping the stress low - even as the school's first College World Series in six years approaches.

"That's just the way we are," junior leader Whit Merrifield said. "Off the field, we're a bunch of goofballs. On the field, we're trying to take care of business, but do it in a way that we know how.

"I think it reflects our attitude. It's a big deal for us to be able to stay loose and take days as they come."

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