By: J.K. McKay
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – What does it take to get two rivals on the same field for the first time since 2002? A super regional that has all the markings of being an instant classic. You know, the kind that 20,000 people will say they were there for each game, in a park that lists capacity at 6,500.
The Grand Strand might never be the same when South Carolina visits BB&T Coastal Field and host Coastal Carolina in a Super Regional beginning on Saturday with a noon start.
The Gamecocks hold a 10-5 lead in the all-time series, including an 11-2 thumping in 2002, which also was the last time the two programs matched up.
The Chanticleers, who are making their second Super Regional appearance, were able to excise the demons that were the Cougars of the College of Charleston behind timely hitting and their never relenting offensive pressure. CofC was responsible for three of Coastal’s eight losses on the season, including a win in the winner’s bracket game of the regional.
In the first of what would be two championship games between the two clubs, it was junior Rico Noel’s game-winner homer off the leftfield foul pole in the bottom of the ninth provided the winning margin in an 8-7 decision. Noel, who was selected in the fifth round by San Diego, would go on to earn regional MVP honors after hitting .435 with seven runs batted in on the strength of four extra base hits including a pair of homers, a double and a triple.
In the championship, the Chants capitalized on a wild pitch to edge CofC and advance.
Led by the efforts of Noel, it was the Chanticleer offense that carried them into the Super Regional round. CCU enters the weekend with 107 homers to its credit as well as 160 stolen bases, so the Gamecocks will their hands full at the plate and on the base paths.
The Gamecocks took a different, shorter course to the Super Regionals, sweeping its regional with wins against Bucknell (9-5), The Citadel (9-4) and Virginia Tech (10-2). It will be Carolina’s eighth trip in the last 11 years to the Super Regional round and the first since the 2007 campaign.
In the Columbia regional it was Adrian Morales who broke out with homers in each of the three games and was named Regional MVP. Morales carries a .288 batting average with eight home runs and 52 runs batted in into the weekend. The third baseman hit an even .500 last weekend and knocked in seven runs.
While Morales helped the Gamecock lineup average over nine runs a game last weekend, it was the USC pitching staff that stole the show. The Gamecocks limited their opponents to a meager .190 batting average while compiling a 1.67 ERA. For the season, USC has stymied opponents, holding lineups in check to the tune of a .229 batting average and a 3.53 ERA.
In the winner’s bracket game, senior Blake Cooper fanned 12 in 7 1/3 innings to drop in-state rival The Citadel into the loser’s bracket. Copper improved to 11-1 with the victory and was named to the All-Regional squad.
Neither Coastal Head Coach Gary Gilmore or USC’s Ray Tanner has announced the order of its rotation, but the starters have been announced. Coastal will send junior lefthander Cody Wheeler (12-0, 3.59) and sophomore righthander Anthony Meo (13-2, 2.63). The Gamecocks will counter with Cooper (11-1, 2.75) and junior righthander Sam Dyson (5-5, 4.00).
Questions abound in this regional. Will Coastal be able to shake the memory of its collapse in the 2008 Super Regional against North Carolina? Will South Carolina’s sluggers take advantage of a short porch (308-feet) in left at BB&T Coastal Field? Can speed kill and send the Chants to Omaha? Or will the age-old adage of pitching beats offense? If the regionals were a preview of what’s to come, those 20,000 fans won’t be disappointed.