Originally created 05/24/05

Gamecocks head to SEC tournament



COLUMBIA, S.C. - Sure, it was last place and overmatched Kentucky. But don't tell South Carolina its three-game sweep of the Wildcats this past weekend wasn't exactly what it needed heading to the Southeastern Conference tournament this week.

With South Carolina bats pounding out hits and the Gamecocks getting offense at all the right times, shortstop Steven Tolleson said it looked like the team that's been to three consecutive College World Series.

"Whether it's mental or not, it's a huge pick-me-up to know our confidence is back," Tolleson said. "We feel like the South Carolina of old again."

The Gamecocks (37-19), defending SEC tournament championships, had a power outage the likes of which they hadn't seen in a while. They followed a 28-5 start by going 6-14 over the next month and went from a likely high conference tournament seed to fighting for one of the league's eight spots with Kentucky coming to town.

It wasn't any of the team's 42 hits or six home runs against Kentucky, however, that convinced players their run of futility was finished, Tolleson said.

Davy Gregg's grounder that skipped off Wildcat shortstop Ryan Wilkes glove and into left field for an eighth-inning hit Friday night, the Gamecocks knew things were looking up.

"That was the first time that we've had a ball actually go our way in about a month," Tolleson smiled.

South Carolina's bats followed suit. The team scored 33 runs and won three straight games for the first time an unexpected sweep at powerful LSU from April 8-10 capped a nine-game win streak.

Coach Ray Tanner said he threw more batting practice last week than he had in a while. He was happy to see his players' work pay off, at least last weekend.

"We got our bats going," Tanner said. "That's key for us."

The effects were evident Monday as coaches and players packed the team bus for the trip to Hoover, Ala. Teammates were high-fiving each other, laughing about everything and generally in a lighthearted mood.

Tanner bounced his 1-year-old daughter Bridgette Grace in his arms as he supervised the scene.

"This is real good for us," outfielder Brendan Winn said.

And maybe bad for the rest of the SEC.

Tolleson said the Gamecocks feel like they have new life after a horrendous stretch of baseball, perhaps the worst of his three years. "I don't know if anybody has a word" for how badly South Carolina played, said Tolleson, the son of former major leaguer Wayne Tolleson.

But with the burden of bad batting gone, the Gamecocks can focus on defending their tournament title and potentially playing their way into hosting the first round of the NCAA baseball tournament.

After all, South Carolina is among the top four in SEC pitching and fielding. If the bats remain hot and bring the Gamecocks deep into the SEC tournament, Tanner thinks there's a chance - albeit a remote one - of playing at Sarge Frye Field to start the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six years.

"We have experience. We have guys on this team that in the postseason have done some things," Tanner said. "Hopefully, we can bring all that out and turn it into an advantage."

The Gamecocks, the sixth seed, open the tournament Wednesday against Tennessee. While the Vols won all three games against South Carolina this season, coach Rod Delmonico has decided to pass on using their ace - and a strong candidate for SEC player of the year - Luke Hochevar, in the opener and to go with righty Chris Howell, who has appeared in 20 games this year but made only one start.

No matter, the Gamecocks are ready to keep swing against anyone who steps on the mound.

"There's a lot of confidence right now," said South Carolina's Aaron Rawl, who'll likely get the start against Tennessee. "We swung the bats well, we had to play and we had to win to get into the tournament.... That's a big deal."