South Carolina heads into its second series Friday against Southern Illinois, and Ray Tanner hopes to see the same focus that he witnessed in the opening three-game sweep of Santa Clara.
Last year in the regular season, the Gamecocks lost non-conference weekend series to East Carolina and Clemson, but they rolled through the rest of the non-conference schedule with a 20-0 mark. He would love to see this team take care of its non-conference opponents in the same fashion.
“It’s important that you emphasize the importance of every game and approach them with a sense of urgency. Our guys understand that,” Tanner said Thursday.
Those wins help produce the kind of overall record – along with a solid SEC showing – that can lead to being an NCAA regional host at the end of the regular season. He believes this team’s experience – which includes veteran players like Scott Wingo, Adrian Morales, Jackie Bradley and Michael Roth – will keep it from looking past those unranked non-conference opponents.
Tanner calls the season “a marathon,” but he doesn’t want to see any sort of letdown. The angriest he got last season came after the East Carolina series, and he let his players know it after they got back to Columbia. He also ran two-a-day practices after the Gamecocks were the first team eliminated in the SEC tournament last season.
Both times the response was positive. He hopes to maintain that concentration all season this time around.
“You don’t want to look back and go woulda, coulda, shoulda. Make sure you’re ready to play, and if you get beat, you get beat,” he said. “You can’t look back and feel like the approach wasn’t good enough.”
To nobody’s surprise, Tanner and pitching coach Jerry Meyers decided to stick with the same starting rotation used in last week’s sweep of the Broncos – lefties Michael Roth, Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland. The three combined to toss 17 1/3 innings with a 1.04 ERA, allowing a total of only 10 hits and four walks while striking out 15.
Why mess with success, right?
But Tanner emphasized that he still wanted to give left-handers Bryan Harper and Steven Neff, who both pitched in relief last week, opportunities as well. Their roles will be defined in part by how well Roth, Webb, and Westmoreland pitch in front of them.
The five pitchers are enjoying pushing each to perform. Roth joked before Thursday’s practice that the five of them needed to come up with a catchy nickname.
“We’re going to try to think of something to get us going, a little name or something,” he said. “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”
(How about the Flying Southpaw Brothers? OK, never mind.)
But Roth hopes the staff right-handers don’t get their feelings hurt about being excluded.
“We won’t forget about the righties. We still love the righties,” he said.
Right on for this righty
Hard-throwing freshman right-hander Forrest Koumas may end with something better than a nickname. If he keeps throwing well, he could end up with a bigger role. The former Lugoff-Elgin High standout tossed two scoreless innings with three strikeouts in last Sunday’s game.
Tanner said Thursday that Koumas has the unique ability to be either a closer or a frontline starter in the program as his career progresses.
“Time will tell,” Tanner said. “It’s too early to say how his future will be determined.”
Sad days for Salukis
Southern Illinois, which enters this series with a 2-2 mark, are playing this season with heavy hearts. Former head coach Dan Callahan, who guided the program to 442 wins in 16 seasons, died of a rare form of skin cancer in November. SIU is led by interim head coach Ken Henderson, a longtime assistant in Carbondale who took over after Callahan’s death.
To honor their former coach, the Salukis are wearing an embroidered “Cal” on their hats and hanging his jersey in the dugout during games. Tanner did not know how ill Callahan was when they scheduled the series last year. The two knew each other years ago when Tanner’s N.C. State team played Callahan’s Western Illinois team.
“That’s very difficult for this program, and I know he has inspired them in a great way,” Tanner said.