“Please don’t ask me who’s going to win the South Carolina-Clemson game,” Saint Louis coach Darin Hendrickson joked.
It’s a question most who will fill up 8,200-seat Carolina Stadium this weekend can’t wait to find out.
For the second consecutive season, the NCAA Tournament committee placed the two state schools in the same four-team regional at South Carolina’s home field. A year ago, the Gamecocks took two one-run victories over their rivals to advance to the best-of-3 NCAA super regional series.
South Carolina and Clemson play three games each regular season, a series only surpassed in fan fervor and anticipation by the schools’ annual football game.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett says the South Carolina series is like adding another conference opponent to his grueling Atlantic Coast Conference schedule and hopes the tournament committee will realize putting the rivals at the same spot isn’t what’s best for the game.
“To go back to the same tournament two years in a row and play your rival,” Leggett said. “I always like the idea of new teams and new venues.”
Both Holbrook and Leggett have had their hands full getting their players back from the brink after horrible conference tournaments. The Gamecocks came in runner-up in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division, but went 0-2 and were quickly back home. The Tigers did worse, going 0-3 in the ACC’s pool-play format and perhaps costing themselves a shot at playing host to their own regional.
Leggett said if his club could have held a 7-2 lead in the ninth inning last Friday night against eventual ACC champ North Carolina – the Tar Heels rallied to a 14-9 extra innings victory – “we may not be sitting here right now.”
Another showdown isn’t guaranteed.
South Carolina (39-18) must get past Atlantic 10 Tournament champion Saint Louis (41-19) today while Clemson (39-20) must face Big South Tournament champion Liberty (34-27).
Wins by the Palmetto State rivals would set up a Saturday night meeting in the winner’s bracket. Losses by each, as unlikely as that looks, would force an elimination game on Saturday.
Holbrook is in his first season as Gamecocks coach after serving as the top assistant to former coach Ray Tanner, now the school’s athletic director. He’s got his guys thinking solely about the Billikens: “I’m not worried about Clemson since I’m pitching against Saint Louis,” Gamecocks starter Nolan Belcher says.
Holbrook understands the distractions that come along with having the rivals both on South Carolina soil come NCAA tournament time. The media room was overflowing with TV cameras. Players on both sides deflected questions about their state foes. Holbrook said flatly the attention on South Carolina and Clemson wasn’t fair to Liberty and Saint Louis, each who achieved to make it this far.
“I don’t think that’s fair to them. They both deserve to be talked about,” Holbrook said of the two non-state schools here.
Liberty coach Jim Toman, an assistant to Tanner for 18 years at North Carolina State and South Carolina, loved the focus on the two baseball powers. “Maybe we can throw a wrench in the whole deal,” he said.
Leggett and Holbrook would both prefer to stay away from a rivalry matchup until the College World Series. That’s happened twice in the past 11 years with the Gamecocks coming out on top both times. In 2010, South Carolina won a pair of elimination games over the Tigers on the way to the first of two straight College World Series titles.
Could the NCAA committee’s continued postseason pairing of South Carolina and Clemson lead the schools to back away from the regular-season matchups? Neither coach saw things going that far.
Leggett believes college baseball leaders will see how little sense it makes to pit the Tigers and Gamecocks together during early tournament rounds and switch things up down in future years.
Holbrook chuckled the idea of the rivalry disappearing until the postseason. “Even if I didn’t want to, I still wouldn’t have a vote in it,” he said.