The South Carolina baseball team opens its defense of a national championship Friday night against Georgia Southern as the road back to Omaha starts with an NCAA regional in Columbia.
The Gamecocks, who claimed a No. 4 national seed and the top seed in their four-team regional, welcome Stetson and N.C. State in addition to Georgia Southern. Not only are they thrilled to be starting at Carolina Stadium, but they also know what it’s going to take to make a return trip to the College World Series.
“It’s a tough regional, but nobody said the road to Omaha is easy,” junior left-hander Michael Roth said. “It wasn’t easy for us last year. We’ve just got to go out on a five-game win streak.”
USC (45-14) will face the fourth-seeded Eagles (36-24), the Southern Conference tournament champions, at 7 p.m. Friday, while second-seeded Stetson (41-18) of the Atlantic Sun will play third-seeded N.C. State (34-25) of the ACC in the regional opener at 1 p.m.
USC coach Ray Tanner is taking nothing as a given.
“It’s a very difficult regional, no question about it,” said Tanner, who just happened to speak on the phone with N.C. State coach Elliott Avent and GSU coach Rodney Hennon before Monday’s NCAA selection show. “It’s a tough field. I’ve got to think Georgia Southern is the best No. 4 seed in the country, based on a quick look at the brackets.”
The Eagles feature slugging outfielder Victor Roache (.327 BA, 30 HR, 83 RBIs) and ace right-hander Chris Beck (9-4, 3.21 ERA). The Gamecocks learned on their 11-1 run through the postseason a year ago that they must play their best each night to keep advancing. Of that, sophomore first baseman Christian Walker (.357 BA, 9 HR, 57 RBIs) is certain. USC trailed Bucknell midway through the opening game of the regional last season before going on its tear.
“It’s going to be a challenge. It’s the postseason,” Walker said. “It’s like everyone has another gear that you can kick it into. You can’t take anything for granted. You can’t take anybody lightly.”
The Gamecocks, who won 31 of 35 games at home this season, are one of the 64-team field’s 16 host teams. For the second consecutive season, Carolina Stadium will serve as a host site. Historically, the Gamecocks, who are making their 27th NCAA tournament appearance in a 38-season span, have played well at home in opening-round regionals.
In that time, the Gamecocks have previously hosted 12 of them and won 11, with the only loss coming in 1976. In those 12 regionals, they’ve posted a 38-5 record.
“Home-field advantage is very important when it comes to college baseball,” said sophomore outfielder Evan Marzilli (.307 BA, 28 RBIs). “You don’t really realize it until you get here. Having home-field advantage and playing on as nice of a field as we have and having the fans we have is definitely something we’re happy (about) for this regional.”
Tanner wasn’t ready to name a starting pitcher yet for Friday night’s game. But Roth (11-3, 1.17 ERA) is ready to go.
“We’ll see whether I throw Friday night. It depends on the matchups,” Roth said.
The Gamecocks, the SEC regular-season co-champions, also earned a guaranteed host role for a potential Super Regional if they advance. The winner of the Columbia regional will play the winner of the Clemson regional, which features Clemson, UConn, Coastal Carolina and Sacred Heart, in a Super Regional.
But Tanner remains totally focused on the task at hand. He doesn’t want to get caught looking ahead to a possible matchup with his team’s archrival.
“I’ve always had the mentality, ‘Let’s win the next one.’ There’s where we are,” Tanner said. “We’ll do our best to try to get in position to win on Friday and go from there. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. You’ll get in trouble if you do. “
During Tanner’s 15-season tenure, his teams have won home regionals in 2000-02, 2004, 2007, and 2010. Of the nine times South Carolina has reached the College World Series in its history, eight trips began with a home regional.
He likes being right where he is as his team starts another postseason.
“We have a tremendous venue here and great fans. They appreciate baseball,” he said. “We’re glad to be here, and I know the other three teams coming in here are looking forward to the opportunity to play at Carolina Stadium.”
Evan Marzilli, Christian Walker