Only two teams in the country have reached the College World Series each of the previous three seasons — South Carolina and Florida.
The SEC East foes have elevated their divisional rivalry into a national one. In 13 games from 2010 to 2012, the Gamecocks won seven, and the Gators won six.
Florida won an SEC regular-season championship in 2010 as well as shared a regular-season title and claimed a tournament championship in 2011.
The Gamecocks shared the 2011 regular-season conference title, and they won national championships in 2010 and 2011, while finishing as the national runner-up last season.
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The Gamecocks have won all three meetings between the two in Omaha, including a two-game sweep in the 2011 national championship series.
“We have a lot of respect for them. They have a lot of respect for us,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “It’s not a bitter rivalry. It’s a rivalry built on respect. They appreciate what we’ve done, and we respect what they’ve done.”
The teams renew the rivalry with a three-game series that starts Thursday night in Gainesville. Tonight’s game is being televised on ESPNU and Saturday’s game will be shown on ESPN2. This time, however, the stakes don’t seem quite as high.
The No. 11 Gamecocks (27-7, 8-4 SEC), who have won six straight conference games, are holding up their end, but the unranked Gators (16-18, 5-7) are struggling to find some consistency. But you’re not going to hear any of the USC players talking about having an upper hand this season.
“They’ve got some of the best talent in the country year-in and year-out. They may be scuffling right now, but we know we’re going to get their best shot all three games,” USC catcher Grayson Greiner said. “Every game in the league is a big game, and we’ve got to go down there and play our best ball.”
Most of the biggest stars on both teams in the past three seasons have departed to the professional ranks.
The Gamecocks no longer have ace Michael Roth, closer Matt Price, outfielder Jackie Bradley, second baseman Scott Wingo or first baseman Christian Walker. The Gators no longer have pitcher Brian Johnson, pitcher-infielder Austin Maddox, catcher Mike Zunino, shortstop Nolan Fontana or outfielder Preston Tucker.
Greiner, who watched the 2010 and 2011 games as an area high school player, was thrilled to take part in the games last season, when the Gators won three-of-four before they dropped the CWS opener to the Gamecocks.
“It was like playing against a big league team,” Greiner said. “You hear about all their guys. It was exciting. It gets your juices flowing a little bit playing big-name guys like that.”
Although the Gators lack those big names this season, they still have plenty of talent, according to Holbrook.
“They’re a good team, and I definitely think they’re a better team than what their record shows,” USC senior closer Tyler Webb said. “They’ve got some veteran guys who have been there and been to Omaha as many times as I have. It’s Florida in Gainesville. That’s all the motivation you need to play well.”
WHO: USC (27-7, 8-4 SEC) vs. Florida (16-18, 5-7)
WHEN: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m.
WHERE: McKethan Stadium, Gainesville, Fla.
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5
TV: ESPNU on Thursday; CSS on Friday; ESPN2 on Saturday
SERIES: USC leads 42-32
LAST MEETING: USC defeated the Gators 7-3 in the 2012 College World Series
RANKINGS: USC is No. 11 in Baseball America
PITCHING MATCHUPS: Thursday, USC LHP Nolan Belcher, Sr., 5-2, 1.70 vs. Florida RHP Jonathon Crawford, Jr., 1-5, 4.37; Friday, USC LHP Jordan Montgomery, Soph., 3-0, 0.78 vs. Florida LHP Danny Young, Fr., 1-3, 3.38; Saturday, USC TBA vs. Florida RHP Johnny Magliozzi, Soph., 3-1, 2.25
NOTES: USC is hitting .284 as a team, while Florida is batting .258. The Gamecocks have a staff ERA of 2.93, a run better than the Gators’ 4.00. USC closer Tyler Webb leads the SEC with 11 saves. Florida closer Johnny Magliozzi, who has six saves, is being moved into the rotation as Saturday’s starter. Florida’s home record to date is 11-13. The Gamecocks have scored 221 runs, and the Gators have scored 158.