CLEMSON - As the NCAA selection show appeared on flat-screen televisions ina packed Clemson clubhouse Monday, Jack Leggett whistled to quiet a jovialClemson team. The group was feeling good after winning 27 of 33 games tosecure a regional a day earlier, but the Clemson coach signaled it was timeto get serious, it was time to learn about their road to Omaha.
Clemson discovered it will not be an easy path to return to the CollegeWorld Series.
This weekend Clemson will entertain No. 18 Connecticut, fellow PalmettoState power Coastal Carolina and Sacred Heart, who the Tigers open againstFriday. And if Clemson and No. 4 national seed South Carolina win theirregionals, the Tigers will travel to Columbia next week for a best-of-threeseries against its rival for a trip to the College World Series.
No one said it would be easy for Clemson.
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No. 2 seed Connecticut (41-17-1) boasts of the two most talented players inthe NCAA tournament, a pair of projected first-rounders in ace Matt Barnes(11-3, 1.77 ERA) and five-tool outfielder George Springer (.361 avg., 12home runs, 31 steals).
"UConn has some guys that could be drafted pretty quick," Clemson thirdbaseman John Hinson said, "but it's a team game, and as a team I think weare one of the best in the nation."
Connecticut is not just a two-star team.
Entering last week, the Huskies ranked 12th in the nation with a 2.85 staffERA and sixth with 122 steals, speed being critical in a new era where powerhas been stripped from the game.
No. 3 seed is Coastal Carolina (41-18) is in possession of its own ace inAnthony Meo (9-3, 2.21 ERA), who tossed a no-hitter in the Big SouthTournament last week. Like Clemson and Connecticut, Coastal has adiversified offense with 99 steals and 47 home runs.
The Tigers defeated Coastal Carolina, 5-4, earlier this year in Clemson."It doesn't matter who else is in the regional," said Coastal Carolina coachGary Gilmore when asked about Clemson by reporters. "We can only focus onone (team) and hopefully we can get by those guys."
Sacred Heart won 11 of 12 games leading into its conference tournament titleand has a coach who played in the NFL, Nick Giaquinto.
Despite a strong field, Clemson has a couple things going for it, includinghistory.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, Clemson has hostedsix regionals and advanced six times. Clemson is 38-7 in home regional gamesunder Leggett.
"It's much nicer playing at home," Leggett said, "but you've still got to goout and earn it."
The Tigers might also benefit from UConn and Coastal being compelled tothrow their aces, Barnes and Meo, in their opening game to avoid the dreadedloser's bracket in the double-elimination format. But the Hartford Courant reported Monday thatConnecticut coach Jim Penders was considering starting 9-game winner GregNappo against Coastal and saving Barnes for a potential winner's bracketmeeting with Clemson.
UConn has pitching depth but Barnes is on another level. Baseball Americanprojects Barnes, who can touch 96 mph, as the 10th overall pick. Therighthander has struck out 105 batters and allowed just 62 hits and 28 walksin 112 innings this season.
Leggett did not say who would be his starting pitcher against Sacred Heart.Leggett could gamble and save his ace Dominic Leone for the second game.Leggett said Kevin Brady who has recently returned from a strained forearmwill remain in a bullpen role, having not had enough time to stretch out hisarm to return to the rotation. Another starting pitcher, Jonathan Meyer, hasa swollen knee but is expected to be OK for the weekend.
"I think everyone knows what their role is," Leggett said. "And our pitchingroles are starting to be more defined as well."