2012 NCAA Regional Preview: Columbia, SC

University of South Carolina pitcher Michael Roth
Senior pitcher Michael Roth is scheduled to start
South Carolina’s second game in the NCAA’s Columbia Regional.

 

Friday’s schedule

No. 3 seed Coastal Carolina (41-17) vs. No. 2 seed Clemson (33-26), Noon, ESPNU

No. 4 seed Manhattan (33-25) vs. No. 1 seed South Carolina (40-17), 4 p.m., ESPNU

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It’s the elephant in the room no one wants to deal with – yet.

When the NCAA Selection Committee set up the Columbia Regional the placement of Clemson, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina at the same venue – along with Manhattan – had baseball fans in South Carolina buzzing.

The Clemson-South Carolina rivalry is a 24/7, 365 proposition in the Palmetto State. It’s hard to find a native sports fan that is neutral  about the rivalry – unless that person’s rooting interest is for another state school such as Coastal Carolina.

If a Clemson-South Carolina game does come about, you can expect a sellout crowd of 8,242 – more if the Columbia fire marshal is looking the other way – to have Carolina Stadium rocking.
There’s no guarantee of a Clemson-South Carolina matchup in Columbia this weekend. The No. 2 seed Tigers (33-26) face third-seeded Coastal Carolina (41-17) in the regional opener at Noon Friday at Carolina Stadium.  Top regional seed and No. 8 national seed South Carolina (40-17) meets Manhattan at 4 p.m. There is the potential for rain Friday.

All games at the venue are scheduled to be televised on ESPNU.

“My first reaction (to the regional assignments) was ‘They only want one team coming out of here (South Carolina),’” USC coach Ray Tanner said.  “I think if you go back to the history and tradition Coach (Gary) Gilmore has established at Coastal, they could go somewhere and win. Clemson certainly has a proven track record; they can go somewhere and win. We’ve been able to win. Well, they’re only getting one now because they’ve suffocated us a little bit here.”

“One of the things that we use in our recruiting is that I feel like we’re in the best state in the country in college baseball,” Gilmore said; “Basically outside of shipping College of Charleston out, you’re basically making this into a state championship and eliminating multiple opportunities to get people to the College World Series. That’s the disappointment I have.

“This is an awesome opportunity for us. Would it be nice to see four South Carolina teams go to four different places and have four opportunities to go to Omaha? I’m not part of the committee; all I see is when the bracket comes out.”

Clemson’s Leggett said the grouping of three state teams hasn’t been on his mind.

“I’m just excited about playing and bringing our team down here to see what we can do. Regardless of where you go you’ll face good ball clubs and teams that were hot at the end of the year and had great seasons. We had a good run ourselves. We can’t worry about that right now.

“It’s one of those things that we played South Carolina and Coastal. When you go to regionals, sometimes you like to play teams you haven’t seen, but the programs in the state of South Carolina continue to get stronger and stronger. Unfortunately or fortunately, they’ll get grouped together at times, so here we are.”

“This is the 23rd (regional) I’ve been in,” Leggett said. “They’re all exciting and all bring a new challenge. They all have the same goal in mind to get past this one and get to the next one.

“It’s really no different. We are playing teams that we’re a little bit familiar with, but that’s happened before. I don’t think it changes my approach at all. They’re just a team that’s in our way, and we’re a team in their way. It doesn’t matter where we play or who we play, you just have to play your best baseball this time of year or you’re not going to last very long.”

“It certainly looks like this region is built maybe for that winners bracket game of South Carolina and Clemson,” said Manhattan coach Jim Duffy. “I certainly can understand that. That matchup is big. Even though I live in New Jersey and coach for a team in the Bronx, I understand what it’s like down here in the SEC and ACC. I certainly do respect that.

“That being said, we’re not all that concerned about what the other games have to offer. My concern and focus for my guys is to be prepared to compete against South Carolina tomorrow. That alone we will certainly have our hands full. We can’t get outside of that.”

Coastal Carolina certainly doesn’t want any “little brother” perception when  compared to the larger state schools.

“After as many years as we’ve been banging on that door, I hope we’re not somebody that anybody would overlook,” said Gilmore, who has averaged 40 wins during his 17 years at Conway. “ I’ve been in this tournament a number of times and never done the things and seen the places that Ray and Jack  have done.

“ It’s a dream of ours to get to Omaha. One thing I’ve found out is there’s not a weak team anywhere in the country on day one,” Gilmore said “I look at the guy that South Carolina has to face (Manhattan’s Taylor Sewitt). He’s got like 37 straight innings with no runs. I wouldn’t like to face that guy. I don’t want to see that cat, so it’s one of those things where you get here and hope to find way to compete and stay alive every day. If people respect us I appreciate it. These guys over the years have earned that right.

USC senior pitcher Michael Roth, who burst onto the national scene with a complete-game victory over Clemson in an elimination game of the 2010 College World Series, said the prospects of playing in-state teams  hasn’t been at the forefront of the players’ minds.

“Mostly we’re just really excited that it’s probably going to be probably the best atmosphere in  college baseball this weekend,” Roth said. “You’re not going to be able to beat it anywhere and we’re excited to be playing in an atmosphere like that.”

Clemson’s Richie Shaffer says his team’s attention must be on Coastal Carolina and nothing else.

“It can be easy to get distracted if you’re not focused on the task at hand,” Shaffer said. “It will be difficult to stay focused, but we have to take care of business tomorrow because if we don’t do that who knows what can happen.

Coastal Carolina, the six-time Big South Conference regular-season and tournament champion – beat Clemson, 10-7, April 24 in Clemson.

Gilmore plans to start junior left-hander Austin Wallace (5-0, 2.05. Clemson plans to counter with junior right-hander Kevin Pohle (6-4, 3.66).

“They’re a great team and great athletes,” Gilmore said of the Tigers. “We’ll have our work cut out for us. For us to ever shed that mid-major type title that everyone wants to throw on us, we have to at some point in time get to a regional and super regional, and if we’re playing South Carolina or Clemson, we have to break through. Every time we get an opportunity like this, it’s a great opportunity.”

Dominic Leone (6-4, 5.49), the Tigers’ No. 1 weekend starter, has been away from the team  because of a death in his extended family. He is expected to rejoin the team and be available to pitch Saturday.

Tanner is rolling the dice in Friday’s opener against Manhattan by starting right-hander Colby Holmes (6-1, 3.39). The junior was unbeaten until getting roughed up by Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week in Hoover.

Tanner’s decision saves Roth  (6-1, 2.58) for Saturday’s game against either Clemson or Coastal Carolina.

“It’s a case where we (Tanner and pitching coach Jerry Myers) thought Michael would be a great matchup for Coastal or Clemson,” Tanner said. “We’re going to play Coastal or Clemson. That was the thought process going into it; nothing to do with anything else other than that.”

Manhattan, which won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships, will start the side-arming right-hander  Sewitt (11-1, 2.40), a senior who threw 22 shutout innings over three days last week as the Jaspers fought back from the losers bracket to win the league tournament.

“We’ve had those guys; we’ve seen those guys,” Tanner said. “Do you see them every day? No. That’s one reason why I think people like Sewitt are so good. It’s unusual; it’s unorthodox; it’s not normal. That’s why I think he’s so effective. The young man is thriving.”

South Carolina suffered a late blow to its lineup when starting catcher Grayson Greiner suffered a knee injury during batting practice Wednesday. He had surgery on Thursday and will miss the regional. Tanner said Greiner might be available to hit if USC should advance to the Super Regional round.

Dante Rosenberg, who started 15 games during the season to give Greiner a break, will be the replacement. Greiner had been effective cutting down on opponents’  base-stealing efforts, particularly late in the season.

“We’re disappointed that Grayson had an injury, but we don’t lack confidence in Dante,” tanner said. “He’s excited about his opportunity and I think he’ll do well.”

It’s the first injury-related loss to the Gamecocks’ everyday lineup this season. They fought through injuries to  outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Adam Matthews  and first baseman Christian Walker – along with a rapid heartbeat scare involving Evan Marzilli – last season to win their second consecutive College World Series.

Neither Clemson not Coastal Carolina will have any sympathy for USC when it comes to injuries. Injuries cost the Tigers key reliever Matt Campbell and the Chanticleers ace starter Josh Conway for the year earlier this season.

Manhattan rebounded from a 1-14 start to earn its second consecutive NCAA bid.

“Really, me and the guys couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Manhattan’s Duffy.  “We’re proud of what we’ve done this year thus far. We’ve competed hard. It’s been a tough year at times. We’ve had to earn everything we have and everything we’ve gotten up to this point, so to draw the two-time defending national champions, I guess everyone was surprised but us that that’d be the way it would go.

“The one thing I will say about my team is they will compete and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played and play it hard.”

Prediction:  Clemson, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina all have the talent to come out on top here. The loss of catcher Grayson Greiner to injury is a blow to South Carolina, particularly on defense. Clemson and USC have been struggling offensively down the stretch, while Coastal Carolina has been getting great pitching. With three teams so closely matched, the home-field edge could be the difference.

1. South Carolina. 2. Clemson. 3. Coastal Carolina. 4. Manhattan.