After the pairings were announced, USC coach Ray Tanner shared a laugh about it with assistant Sammy Esposito, a fellow North Carolina State alum. Then they got a call from Esposito’s father Sam, who coached both of them at N.C. State.
Otherwise, Tanner was pretty unemotional about the return to his alma mater, which he left 11 years ago for South Carolina. The reunion was arranged by the NCAA tournament selection committee, which placed second-seeded USC in the Raleigh Regional on Monday.
Still, Tanner admitted a bit of pride that his alma mater — which never bid for a regional while he was coaching there — is hosting one for the first time in the 42-year history of Doak Field. (The Wolfpack did host a regional in 2003 in Wilson, N.C., when their home field was being renovated.)
“So we’ve come a long way — when I saw we, as an alum — we’ve come a long way,” Tanner said. “So I’m excited for N.C. State to be hosting right now. I think that’s one thing that stands out with me from an emotional standpoint: We finally, the Wolfpack finally got a chance to host. And it’s been a long time coming.”
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Familiarity is the theme of the regional, which looks a lot like last year’s Columbia Regional. The only differences are the site, N.C. State and USC switching seeds, and the fourth seed (James Madison instead of Wofford).
The Gamecocks open the tournament Friday at 2 p.m. against third-seeded Charlotte, another familiar face. The 49ers lost twice in last year’s regional to the Gamecocks, including the championship game, then beat USC 11-2 earlier this year at Sarge Frye Field.
The winner of the Raleigh Regional moves on to face the winner of the Athens Regional. The latter includes Georgia, the last of the eight national seeds, as well as Georgia Tech, Louisville and Lipscomb.
South Carolina didn’t get a chance to play N.C. State in last year’s regional. So if they do meet, Tanner will face his alma mater for the first time. But first the Gamecocks have to deal with Charlotte, the Atlantic 10 champion.
The 49ers (43-14) could be without their best hitter, Ryan McElroy. The senior has missed the past 12 games with an ankle injury, and his status is day-to-day, according to Charlotte spokesman Ryan Rose.
Tanner is leaning toward starting freshman right-hander Sam Dyson against Charlotte, and then senior right-hander Nick Godwin in Saturday’s second game. Former top starter Mike Cisco will be the lead reliever for now, Tanner said.
South Carolina (38-21) enters the NCAA tournament after an uneven stretch, going 7-10 to end the season. Tanner said the team returned from the SEC tournament — where it went 1-2 — talking about “playing with an attitude.”
“We haven’t been a bad team, we haven’t been a great team, we’ve been pretty good at times,” Tanner said. “And I think there’s a little bit of an itch that ‘Hey, let’s put together a little bit of a streak here.’ ”
USC’s Raleigh assignment was no surprise given the geographic nature of the process. Larry Templeton, the chairman of the selection committee, said USC also could have gone to the Conway Regional, hosted by Coastal Carolina.
In his public comments, Tanner was cautious about getting an at-large bid. But Templeton’s committee saw fit to give USC a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the tournament for the 11th year in a row.
“They had 38 wins and they had some quality wins outside the SEC against some teams we were judging,” Templeton said. “We just felt like, as we ranked the SEC, that that was a team that deserved a No. 2 seed.”
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