OMAHA, Neb. — Arizona came to the College World Series as one of the hottest teams in the nation and swept three straight games to reach the championship round.
Yet coach Andy Lopez and his players know few outside their fan base are paying much attention to them as the best-of-three series starts Sunday.
That's because South Carolina (49-18) has completed an improbable run to the finals, where it will try to become the first team in 40 years to win a third straight title.
"We're just excited to be invited to the Ray Tanner Invitational," Lopez said Saturday.
At that, Tanner, the Gamecocks' 16th-year coach, playfully punched Lopez to open their pre-finals news conference.
"We've got a pretty good team," Tanner said, "but we're not the '27 Yankees. We've had 28 one-run games. We know that every at-bat is crucial for us.
"We've got the chance to play in the finals a third time in a row. It's hard to wrap your arms around that. You just have to have some good luck and fortune along the way, a couple clutch performances along the way."
Sophomore right-hander Konner Wade (10-3), who threw a complete-game five-hit shutout against UCLA last Sunday, will be the Game 1 starter for Arizona (46-17).
The Gamecocks will send Forrest Koumas (2-2) to the mound against an Arizona team that is fourth in the nation in batting (.330) and sixth in scoring (7.4 runs a game).
"Most of the time I'll get a guy or two that kind of gets to me and says I really want the ball," Tanner said with a smile. "But since they've watched these guys hit, I'm not getting those guys. They're avoiding me. All the pitchers are going in a different direction."
Few would have expected the Gamecocks to even return to Omaha this year after they had to replace five regulars in the lineup from the team that beat Florida in the 2011 finals. They had to develop chemistry in an infield that had three new faces and bounce back from losses in five of their first six Southeastern Conference games.
At the CWS, their streak of 22 straight wins in NCAA tournament games ended with a 2-1 loss to Arkansas last Monday. They staved off elimination three times thanks to stellar pitching. They beat Kent State once and the Razorbacks twice in a span of 36 hours because of a Wednesday rainout.
"The whole story of a three-peat, as a fan I definitely would be rooting for that because that's an unbelievable feat," Arizona right fielder Robert Refsnyder said. "The weird, quirky fan who wants to see Arizona win, I'll take that fan."
The last program to show as much dominance as the Gamecocks was Southern California, which won five straight championships from 1970-74.
The difference is that the Gamecocks have had to deal with scholarship limits and bat standards that have reduced offense and created unprecedented parity in the college game. They also have had to survive the night-in, night-out battles in the SEC, the nation's most powerful baseball conference. The SEC has had a team in the finals five straight years.
Tanner said the Gamecocks have had sustained success because they don't dwell on accomplishments.
"You really can't allow yourself to go there," Tanner said. "You just try to play the next game."
For all the roster turnover, the Gamecocks have found stability in their pitching staff.
Michael Roth, a senior left-hander, has a 1.34 career ERA in the CWS. He has allowed eight runs and 31 hits in a CWS career-record 53 2-3 innings. Seven of his nine appearances in Omaha have been starts, tied for the most ever.
Roth is 4-0 in CWS games, and two of his three complete games in Omaha have come in elimination games. The most recent complete came in a two-hitter against Kent State on Thursday.
Junior lefty Tyler Webb and closer Matt Price also have pitched three straight years in the CWS. Those two combined for seven shutout innings against Arkansas on Friday, with Price closing the game for his CWS-record fifth career win in Omaha.
"The first opening ceremonies for the College World Series, they tell you it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Roth said. "I was blowing all my meal money thinking I'm never going to get back here. There is no way we would have thought we would be here three years in a row."