AS SOUTH CAROLINA embarked on another baseball season Saturday at Carolina Stadium, second-year coach Chad Holbrook had his team well versed on what is expected of the No. 7-ranked Gamecocks.
Some teams write “Omaha” inside the bill of their caps. Others place photographs of Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series, inside each player’s locker. USC’s goal of reaching college baseball’s Mecca is simply implanted in the minds of each player.
The surest way to be playing baseball in mid-June in Omaha is to secure a top-eight national seed and the home field advantage in regional and Super Regional play that goes with it.
The reality for teams from the SEC — and the Pac-12 and ACC, as well — is that the regular season is all about securing one of those national seeds. Who among USC fans believe the Gamecocks would have been playing in Omaha a season ago had they not played the deciding game of the Super Regional at top-seeded North Carolina?
“Very,” Holbrook responded when asked the importance of gaining a national seed.
“As you know, it’s magnified here because we’re awfully difficult to beat here,” Holbrook added. “You can look across the country, too. There’s some times when some visiting teams go in and win a Super Regional. I guess Indiana beat Florida State last year.
“There might be some others, but generally speaking, when you look at percentages of those teams that host Super Regionals, those teams usually ... advance to the College World Series.”
By gaining a national seed, those eight teams earn the right to face soft competition in the regional, and it helps explain how 101 of 120 (84.2 percent) national seeds since 1999 have advanced to the Super Regional. Of those 101, 70 reached the College World Series.
The advantage of having the home field for both the regional and Super Regional is even more pronounced for SEC teams.
Since 1999, the first year of national seeding, 28 SEC teams have earned those coveted eight spots. Of those, three have failed to reach the Super Regional. Of the 25 that won their regional, 18 have used the home field advantage to advance to the College World Series.
The SEC has prospered even more over the past six seasons as interest in college baseball has skyrocketed in the league, creating better home-field advantages. Since 2008, 10 of 13 SEC teams that secured national seeds reached Omaha. Florida failed in 2009, LSU in 2012 and Vanderbilt in 2013.
The formula to gaining one of those eight national seeds is simple: win the majority of your non-conference games and finish the SEC regular season as one of the league’s top two teams.
USC again will play 26 non-conference games, none of which will be played outside the state. The Gamecocks can be expected to win 20 to 23 of those. They also play a rigorous 30-game SEC slate. Since the SEC was granted three top-eight national seeds in 2011 and 2012, there is a chance finishing the regular season among the top three in the conference will again get one of those slots.
“People say, why do you think the SEC has had success in the NCAA tournament or in Omaha?” Holbrook said. “I think what we go through in our regular season hardens us for those moments.
“If you’re at the top of the SEC, if you’re one or two you certainly have a chance to be a national seed. Our players realize that. We harp on it all the time, try to be in the top (two).”
Holbrook said he is not a coach who writes down goals and posts them in the team’s clubhouse. Rather, he talks more in general terms to his team. He tells them it is important to be as good as they can be today, win today’s game, then do it again tomorrow.
“That being said, do you have some goals you’d like to accomplish throughout the season? Absolutely,” he said. “Those goals around here are competing for an SEC championship, getting to the NCAA postseason, hosting regional and hosting Super Regional and playing in the College World Series — and ultimately playing for the national championship.”
The common thread through all of those goals is for USC to play well enough during the regular season to earn a national seed for the NCAA tournament. That gained, a spot in the College World Series and a chance to win the national championship likely will follow.