COLUMBIA — Three weeks from tonight, the NCAA tournament will begin, and South Carolina will launch its pursuit of a fourth straight College World Series appearance — something it has never achieved.
What happens in this weekend’s home series against Georgia, which begins tonight; in next weekend’s series at Mississippi State; and in the Southeastern Conference tournament could all play a large role in determining if the Gamecocks return to Omaha, where they won the national title in 2010 and 2011 and finished second last year.
The Gamecocks don’t need victories these next two weekends to get into the NCAA tournament. They’re already in, and are projected to host a regional. But they are still chasing a top eight national seed. If they get one, they will be assured of hosting a best-of-three super regional — the round before the College World Series.
As of Thursday, Perfect Game’s Kendall Rogers does not have USC (34-14, 13-10 SEC) among the national seeds in his tournament field projection. He believes the Gamecocks are 10th in the pecking order, well behind Florida State, which is ninth.
This weekend, USC almost certainly must sweep Georgia (18-28, 5-16), which has the worst overall and league records in the SEC. A sweep next weekend at Mississippi State (36-13, 13-11) would put USC in even better position for a national seed, entering the league tournament.
First, the Gamecocks are just concerned about the availability of leading hitter LB Dantzler for this weekend’s series. He fell while running the bases in Wednesday’s win over Wofford, and dislocated his left shoulder. His status for this weekend is uncertain. So is that of right fielder Connor Bright, a Wando High graduate who is tied for second on the team in batting average. He missed the past two games with a right shoulder impingement. Neither injury is expected to linger into the NCAA tournament.
Once the tournament begins, USC doesn’t need a national seed to host a Super Regional. In 2003, the Gamecocks didn’t get a national seed, but hosted and won a Super Regional because Georgia Tech lost in its Regional. In terms of advancing or not, USC is 5-1 in home Super Regionals and 1-3 on the road, with the victory coming in 2010 at Myrtle Beach — not exactly a daunting road environment.
In all of the pre-World Series tournament rounds that USC has ever played, it is 18-2 at home and 3-15 on the road, in terms of advancing or not. In the individual games, USC is 55-8 at home and 35-31 on the road. USC has won 24 straight NCAA tournament home games, dating to 2002. The Gamecocks got a national seed the past two seasons, and went 5-0 in tournament home games both years, en route to Omaha.
Of course, USC didn’t have a national seed in 2010, and still won it all. All told, of the five times USC has received a national seed, it has made the College World Series four times, missing out only in 2000, as the No. 1 overall seed.
Of the eight times it has not received a national seed, it has made the World Series twice – 2003 and 2010.
Senior third baseman Chase Vergason, in his second year at USC, said the Gamecocks don’t focus on national seed projections. But he knows playing at home throughout last year’s tournament provided a decisive edge.
“That was huge, and actually that’s what I’m pressing for,” Vergason said. “That would be awesome to do again, because our fans are incredible and they push us to be better. That’s what it takes to win some of those games. That would be huge if we could do that again. That makes a difference. The fans win us games a lot of times.”
Carolina Stadium’s 8,242-seat capacity makes it an uncommonly large and intense college baseball venue that opponents aren’t accustomed to, but Holbrook downplayed the major impact of hosting, and how much USC is paying attention to that goal right now.
“Do we have a little bit better home-field advantage than most because of our fan support?” he said. “Yes, we do. But we’ve gotten to Omaha and won a national championship not being a national seed. We want to get into the NCAA tournament and play our best baseball. If you start focusing on hosting or national seed, that’ll create a burden more so than an advantage. I don’t care where we play. I mean, I want to play at home, but I want to (just) be in the NCAA tournament.”