If you’re feeling a sense of familiarity about the NCAA regional at Carolina Stadium this weekend, there’s a good reason.
Two of the teams in the four-team affair already have played South Carolina in a series this season — Liberty in the first weekend and Clemson in the third weekend. The Gamecocks won both series two games to one.
The Tigers, USC’s instate rival since 1899, also traveled to Columbia for last year’s NCAA tournament, when the Gamecocks won both meetings to end Clemson’s season en route to its third consecutive College World Series berth.
“In a perfect world, selfishly, I’d love to play teams that we hadn’t played yet,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “Obviously, there are (geographical) parameters with the NCAA committee that they have to adhere to. Some of this stuff is regionalized a bit, and we have to play who they send us.”
Granted, No. 18 USC (39-18) never has faced its opening-game opponent — Atlantic 10 champion Saint Louis (41-19) — but the Gamecocks will feel a sense of déjà vu as the regional progresses with games against Big South champion Liberty (34-27) or ACC at-large No. 22 Clemson (39-20).
“They know us, we know them,” Holbrook said. “I don’t know if there’s any advantage either way. I do know for us to win this regional, we’re going to have to play some of our best baseball.”
The players weren’t quite sure what to make of a regional field. Senior first baseman LB Dantzler, who leads the team with a .332 average, 15 home runs and 48 RBIs, didn’t know if it was good or bad to face the same teams again.
“We’ve seen them before, so you can say it’s a good thing. We know what we’re getting into,” Dantzler said. “But the one team that we are for sure playing, we haven’t seen. Clemson and Liberty are two good teams. Hopefully, we can get in the winners’ bracket and face one of them.”
The Billikens, however, show up as the unknown quantity.
“We have to worry about taking care of business first on Friday,” sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner said. “We might not even play Clemson, we don’t know. If that situation arises, I’m sure our fans in this city will get ready for it, probably more than we will as far as the rivalry. For us, it’s another chance to advance in the postseason. It’s win or go home.”
The USC program knows something about winning in NCAA tournament play, especially at home, where the Gamecocks have won 24 straight NCAA tourney at Carolina Stadium and Sarge Frye Field dating to 2002.
USC players already were citing the 41 wins for Saint Louis and the statistics of some of their players. That came down from Holbrook.
“We’d better worry about St. Louis,” he said. “If we’re thinking about Clemson, St. Louis is going to beat our tail. That’s not coach-speak, that’s the truth.”
But he also knows that Clemson’s arrival in Columbia tends to suck the oxygen out of the room. Fans go crazy enough over the rivalry even without the season being on the line. USC’s recent success against the Tigers in big games — the Gamecocks also knocked Clemson out of the College World Series in 2002 and 2010 — has Holbrook shaking his head over possibly having to do it one more time. As he cites the historical strength of their program and the coaching ability of Jack Leggett, Holbrook also states that he can’t worry about having no control over the Tigers coming to Carolina Stadium again.
“Would we rather play somebody else? All I know is that I want to play at home. I don’t care who you send here. We get to play at home, and we’ll take our chances based on how we’ve played here,” Holbrook said.
“That being said, the fans love it, the media loves it, obviously ESPN loves it, and the fact that we’re playing for an opportunity to advance to a Super Regional and maybe get to Omaha, the players and coaches love it, too.”
Dantzler, who had the game-winning hit in the 5-4 victory in 12 innings against Clemson in last season’s regional, smiles about the possibility.
“It’s a heated rivalry, but it’s going to be exciting,” he said. “The atmosphere last year was electric, and I know it’s going to be electric again this year if we do happen to play them at some point.”
A limited number of NCAA regional booklets are now available to the general public. A booklet includes tickets for all games in the regional, which will be held Friday through next Monday. Booklets are available for $84 each and are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Fans purchasing the booklet will secure their actual seat locations at the time of the purchase. Single-game tickets for $15 will go on sale Monday at 10 a.m., but there is no guarantee on their availability.