GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – South Carolina pitcher Michael Roth hasn’t forgotten. Neither has Gators catcher Mike Zunino. However, they remember what transpired at Carolina Stadium a year ago for much different reasons.
The Gators and Gamecocks met in a three-game series to determine the SEC regular-season champion. Florida won two of three to claim the title, leaving Roth with an indelible image tucked underneath his ballcap.
“It was tough to see their team dog pile on our field,’’ Roth said Sunday.
Both teams ended up in Omaha. The Gators lost two in a row and headed home. The Gamecocks kept winning until they formed the final College World Series dogpile in history at Rosenblatt Stadium, winning the school’s first national title.
That’s an image difficult for Zunino to shake as the Southeastern Conference rivals prepare to face off in a best-of-three series starting tonight at TD Ameritrade Park to determine the 2011 national champion.
“They got the last laugh. They got to hold the national championship trophy up,’’ Zunino said. “Getting a taste of Omaha helped [our team], but we got a bad taste. We were two and done.’’
Both teams entered the season with lofty expectations. Florida opened ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America poll for the first time in school history. The Gamecocks weren’t far behind as many predicted another run to Omaha for Ray Tanner’s club.
When the teams met at McKethan Stadium in March, South Carolina took two of three. They continued to battle for the SEC East title until the final weekend when Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt each finished at 22-8 in league play, sharing the league’s regular-season title.
All three teams made it to Omaha, but after Florida sent Vanderbilt back to Nashville on Friday and South Carolina knocked out Virginia, the Gators and Gamecocks are the last two standing.
The Gators are 8-1 in the NCAA Tournament; South Carolina is 8-0 and has won an NCAA-record 14 consecutive tournament games dating to last season. Florida can join Ohio State and Michigan as the only two FBS schools to win national titles in football, men’s basketball and baseball by defeating the Gamecocks.
If you like you’re sports rivalries to play out on the biggest stage the game has to offer, this year’s CWS is a home run.
“They play with a great deal of confidence,’’ Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of the Gamecocks. “I think that’s the thing that probably is going to be the most interesting these next two or three games. We’re playing with a great level of confidence as well.
“It’s swag versus swag.’’
When comparing the teams, it’s difficult to determine which has the edge. Both have won 53 games. The Gators have and edge in power – 68 home runs to South Carolina’s 45 – but the Gamecocks possess a better overall ERA (2.49 to 2.97).
The intangibles appear to be in South Carolina’s favor considering the Gamecocks are defending national champions and haven’t lost an NCAA Tournament game since hoisting the trophy in Rosenblatt 12 months ago.
But that was then and this is now.
Tanner confessed Sunday that if you look at how the teams shape up heading into the series, the Gators are probably the favorites, and especially on the mound considering the Gamecocks needed 13 innings to beat Virginia on Friday.
Florida ace Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.24 ERA) squares off against South Carolina freshman right-hander Forrest Koumas (6-1, 3.07) in Game 1. Randall and Koumas faced each other in Gainesville in March with both pitching well. Randall pitched a five-hit complete game in Florida’s 2-1 in.
“If you just go on paper, they may be in a better position,’’ Tanner said. “We’re not a team that can throw a crooked number on you. We have to pitch and play defense and stay in the game and win one late.’’
But don’t let Tanner fool you. O’Sullivan knows nothing will be easy if the Gators leave Omaha with the championship trophy that he and Tanner posed with at a Sunday press conference.
“To do what they’ve accomplished, to come back after winning it last year, it says a great deal about the competitive spirit of their program,’’ O’Sullivan said.
The Gamecocks could be without starting first baseman Christian Walker, who suffered a wrist injury against Virginia and was unable to finish batting practice on Sunday due to lingering pain. Walker leads the team with a .355 average, 10 home runs and 62 RBI.
If Walker is unable to play, that would certainly be a blow to South Carolina’s lineup. Still, this has been a CWS defined by pitching and defense and the Gamecocks have plenty of both, led by Roth (13-3, 0.98 ERA) and closer Matt Price (7-3, 1.91, 18 saves). Price pitched a season-high 5 1/3 innings in Friday’s 13-inning marathon.
Both should be available for Game 2 on Tuesday according to Tanner.
As for the Gators, O’Sullivan plans to start freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson in Game 2, and if the series goes to a Game 3 on Wednesday night, he could go with either Alex Panteliodis or Brian Johnson.
The familiarity of the two programs erases any unknowns and provides proof to a national audience what Tanner and O’Sullivan already know: there’s no better baseball conference in the country than the SEC.
“There’s certainly other teams that could be here right now within our conference,’’ O’Sullivan said.
“It’s going to be fun,’’ Gators outfielder Preston Tucker said. “We all know each other; we’ve all seen each other play all year long. It’s a good thing to kind of know what to expect and know how competitive it’s going to be.’’
Two competitive teams. Two confident teams. Should make for one exciting CWS.
The only thing we know for sure is that an SEC team will be crowned national champion for the third consecutive season.
“It’s almost surreal,’’ Gators senior second baseman Josh Adams said. “It’s one of those things you dream about since you were a little kid. In the end, hopefully we get that ring on our finger.’’