Homefield advantage for USC
COLUMBIA -- The road has been particularly unkind the past few postseasons to South Carolina's baseball team. The Gamecocks' 2010 solution: Avoid it as long as possible.
For the first time since 2007, they'll begin the NCAA playoffs at home by hosting a regional.
With friendly fences and fans, it nearly goes without saying what kind of plus that is.
"It means a lot. You strive to play at home at the end of the year," Gamecocks leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield said. "It's a big advantage to sleep in your own bed and know the field you're playing on and have the fans' support."
Virginia Tech and The Citadel, the respective 2 and 3 seeds, begin play today at 2 p.m. Top-seeded USC and No. 4 seed Bucknell follow at 7 p.m. nightcap. The winners will play Saturday at 7 p.m. The losers player earlier at 2.
Something about playing in the "other" Carolina hasn't meshed well with the Gamecocks' postseason fate the past three seasons.
After winning a home regional in 2007, North Carolina took out the Gamecocks in the deciding game of the teams' super regional in Chapel Hill.
In 2008, N.C. State ended the Gamecocks' season at a regional in Raleigh. Last season, in Greenville, East Carolina erased a ninth-inning deficit to send the Gamecocks home, again shy of the super regional round.
"It's going to be fun having our fans cheering for us instead of fans rooting against us," said Merrifield, who's from Advance, N.C. "The last two regionals, we've had to travel and it hasn't worked out too well for us."
One more bonus: If USC survives this weekend, it will either host or go to Coastal Carolina for a super regional. Either way, there will be a lot of support for the Gamecocks. Either way, the Gamecocks wouldn't leave the state.
This weekend will be everyone's first postseason look at two-year-old Carolina Stadium -- the $36.5 million jewel dubbed this week the "Taj Mahal of college baseball" by one participating coach.
"It's the nicest college baseball stadium I've ever seen," Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes said. "They got everything right. I'm excited to play in it. It's awesome, man. It's everything it's cracked up to be, and maybe more so."
They will pack the max of 8,424 fans in for the sessions this weekend.
When the Gamecocks left suburban Birmingham last week, after an 0-2 showing in the SEC tourney, they were down. Coach Ray Tanner was downright grouchy.
"I was about as unhappy as you could be," Tanner said. "That was tough."
In addition to some productive practices, Tanner's spirits were lifted as he watched the stadium morphing into the top-notch venue it was built to be. In essence, this weekend is why Carolina Stadium was erected. Patriotic buntings are draped around the playing surface. The state's logo, a palmetto tree, has even been mowed into center field.
All it needs is fans and some ball. That's on the way. After three years, the wait for the return of postseason play in Columbia is over.
"The comforts of home, I think, are very important," said Tanner, whose team is 27-6 at home this year. "We've played very well here. There's no question I think our guys prefer being here over somewhere else."