When the University of South Carolina Sumter baseball team takes the field today at 3:30 p.m. against ASA Brooklyn in the opening game of the Eastern District championship, it will do so as a different team than the one that lost five of its last …
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When the University of South Carolina Sumter baseball team takes the field today at 3:30 p.m. against ASA Brooklyn in the opening game of the Eastern District championship, it will do so as a different team than the one that lost five of its last seven games heading into the NJCAA Region 10 tournament in Lexington and fell into the loser's bracket of that tournament with a humbling 12-3 loss to USC Lancaster.
Instead, the Fire Ants hope they'll more closely resemble the team that strung together five straight wins to emerge with the region title and a ticket to upstate New York with a chance to get back to the NJCAA World Series.
"The biggest thing is that I'm just so proud of the way our young men overcame losing in the first round," said USC Sumter head coach Tim Medlin. "When you get into the loser's bracket like that and get beat the way we did - it was as poor a performance as we've had all year long. Don't get me wrong, part of that is due to the fact that Lancaster played about as well as they can play, and we didn't.
"But when you know that in order to do anything, you've got to win five games in a row, it's a daunting task," Medlin said. "I don't think they got caught up in that or got bogged down. They went out and literally did the biggest cliche in baseball, they played it one pitch at a time. It was about as exciting as you can ask for in terms of the drama of the game and to watch them mature."
Indeed, the Fire Ants, which finished last season with a losing record and rebounded this year with a 36-21 mark so far, could call it a successful season just for responding the way they did against Florence-Darlington Tech, Medlin said.
"We had a phenomenal year when we could look and say we beat Florence-Darlington Tech two times to win that tournament, because that is as talented a team as I've encountered in the five years I've been back in junior college baseball," he said. "They're very good. For us to go in there and beat them twice, that's very special."
Everything from here out is icing on the cake, but the Fire Ants are excited for the opportunity to carry off the sweets.
"Everybody's excited for it. It's been a long year," said ace right-hander Blake Robinson, a sophomore out of Florence. "A lot of people doubted us, I guess, but we're here now. I've never been to New York, and most of these guys haven't been. It's going to be exciting. Last year we ended up with a losing record, and this year we're 36-21, so it's been a bounce-back season. Nobody expected it, but we have high expectations."
Robinson attributed the team's success on the field to contributions from everyone on the team.
"We've got some great hitters - (Eric) McGirt, Donta (Green), Lenny (Gonzalez), Tyler Mangum - we've got guys swinging the sticks and our pitching has improved quite a bit. As a pitcher, I can't say we carry the team because we've got some great sticks and defense behind us."
Medlin said the team seemed to coalesce as a family almost overnight after the Lancaster loss.
"Believe me, it was not a family atmosphere up until this weekend," Medlin said. "That is something that really formed after that whipping we took on Saturday night. That's a Lancaster team that we had soundly beaten three out of four times during the season, that came in as the bottom seed. I really feel like our guys took it for granted heading into the game, and I made them stand there and watch them celebrate. I told the guys 'You created that celebration, and that's not the kind of team we are.' To watch them going forward was really a special treat.
"I said all year that I thought the thing that got in the way of our being the kind of team we could be was our immaturity," Medlin said. "We didn't handle some situations well or show up ready mentally to play every day. I told them going into that last game that win or lose, this team has earned my respect and has shown the kind of determination I always felt like was there."
USC Sumter has played two of the three teams in the tournament, splitting games with both Harford Community College and Monroe. The Fire Ants' opening-game opponent, ASA Brooklyn, is 19-17 on the season, while Harford is 47-12 and Monroe is 33-14-1. The four teams will play a double elimination tournament with the winner heading for the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
"We have already played Harford and Monroe this year," said Medlin, whose team split four games with Harford and two games with Monroe early in the season. "They're both very good clubs, but we know what we're capable of and there's no reason for us to think we can't go up there and win it. Right now we're playing with such confidence, even if we get behind and no matter who the opponent is, I really feel like the team trusts themselves and trusts one another."
The Fire Ants are aiming for their second Eastern District title after earning a trip to the JUCO World Series in 2015. The team's second-year players are hoping to avoid another letdown next season by developing a sense of camaraderie.
Sumter's own Lenny Gonzalez, a former Lakewood High standout catcher and infielder, said he and the other second-year players have taken it upon themselves to keep it going, bringing along the freshman class and instilling the same work-ethic that has Gonzalez himself looking at playing at the next level.
"It's been pretty amazing. In high school, I didn't consider myself a very good player because I had a lot of development to do," Gonzalez said. "Coming here was a great choice. I came here I was 255 pounds, and coach Medlin said 'You're going to have to lose weight, because we're going to get you to the next level,' and I said 'Yes sir.' I left here last year at 215 pounds, so he had me working.
"The returners have been a big part of it, holding people accountable and trying to take the first-year guys under our wings and just show leadership," he said. "We try to set an example. I'm leaving this year, but I'm working with the freshmen to get them to do what I did and keep it going."
McGirt, a second-year outfielder from Latta, said the team is on much better footing this season and going forward.
"Our team is together in this now, and last year it wasn't like that," McGirt said. "We just have to do what we did this past weekend, just stay hyped in the dugout and keep everybody up and I don't see anybody stopping us if we do what we know how to do."
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