COLUMBIA — South Carolina ace Michael Roth heard all the negative comments a couple of months ago from fans who thought all was lost when the two-time defending national champions fell into a deep hole early in the Southeastern Conference season.
Now, the Gamecocks (38-13) are right where they usually are – fighting for a conference crown on the final weekend of the regular season.
South Carolina stands a half-game behind league leader Kentucky. Louisiana State University is a game behind and comes to Carolina Stadium for a three-game series starting tonight. Florida, which won the SEC crown in 2010 by defeating the Gamecocks two out of three games on the final weekend, is two games in back of Kentucky and would need plenty of help to reach the top again.
Few thought the Gamecocks would have a shot after they were swept by Kentucky, then lost two of three to Florida to start SEC play 1-5.
“Our fans didn’t think that, they thought the apocalypse was coming,” said Roth, the team’s top pitcher the past two seasons. “We started joking around, ‘Let’s just make the (SEC) playoffs after starting 1-5.’ But we knew we were a good team and what we were able to do in the middle of the SEC was pretty special.”
That included a 14-game SEC winning streak that moved the Gamecocks into position for the title. Even more important could be gaining one of the top two seeds that go to the SEC division winners – and the extra day of rest – in the reformatted 10-team tournament in Hoover, Ala., next week. Seeds three through 10 must play on Tuesday and the top two seeds don’t start until Wednesday.
The South Carolina-LSU series could also be the deciding factor for one of the top eight national seeds who would host regionals and, should they advance, super regionals in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“That’s a really a good thing to be able to stay in the hunt in the last three years and we go down to the final weekend with the opportunity to determine out fate,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said.
Not that losing the conference crown has slowed down South Carolina. It won the first of its two national titles in 2010 after watching Florida dog pile on the Carolina Stadium pitchers’ mound to celebrate winning the SEC regular-season championship. South Carolina had a chance for an outright regular-season crown last year, too, but wound up sharing the championship with Florida and Vanderbilt.
Five weeks later, the Gamecocks upended the Gators to win their second consecutive College World Series.
Roth said South Carolina’s excelled at keeping its eyes on what’s ahead.
“If you look at it, winning the SEC is a goal,” said Roth, 19-3 the past two seasons as the Gamecocks’ weekend series starter. “But it’s not the ultimate goal. If we don’t achieve winning the SEC, then there’s still the prize of the ultimate goal of making it to Omaha. I guess that’s how you keep it in perspective, but not putting all your eggs in this basket.”