COLUMBIA -- Growing up an hour or so from the University of Connecticut's campus, you would think Evan Marzilli, as a youngster, would have had some affection for the Huskies successful athletic program.
No, the Cranston, R.I., native said. He was a Miami fan.
"I've always strayed away from the norm," Marzilli said.
That makes sense. It's probably why Marzilli is a sophomore outfielder at South Carolina and not UConn, USC's super regional opponent this weekend.
Marzilli made up his mind that he wanted to play in the South, where, because of the weather, the college baseball season is longer and stronger. When his family rented a house on Folly Beach in 2008, Marzilli did some research and learned about the Charleston-based Diamond Devils AAU team.
Devils coach John Rhodes found out Marzilli hit nearly .400 as a junior, and he welcomed him to the summer traveling team. Marzilli was hopeful that playing for the Devils would increase his visibility to Southern coaches.
Assistant Chad Holbrook had just made the move from North Carolina to South Carolina that summer when head coach Ray Tanner suggested he go check on the Diamond Devils. He thought it might be good for Holbrook to get to know the coaches, players and families.
Holbrook noticed a rather raw, inconsistent center fielder who intrigued him. Marzilli's Devils teammates had a similar reaction to the quiet kid from "Up North."
"He was a little scrawny little guy," said USC starter Colby Holmes, who played on the team. "I was like, 'How did he get here from Rhode Island?' … After the first weekend, he'd made like three or four diving catches. It boiled down to, 'Hey, this guy's pretty good.' "
After watching several of his games, Holbrook, known as a savvy recruiter, started to get that feeling in his gut, too. The 2009 recruiting class was nearly full, but Tanner had given Holbrook license to sign one or two more players. Holbrook told Tanner about Marzilli, and he gave him the green light.
"I wasn't trying to sign a kid," Holbrook said. "Evan kind of fell in my lap a little bit."
Marzilli accepted South Carolina's offer.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Marzilli said. "I don't think I could have been much more excited than I was. I can tell you that much."
Marzilli arrived on campus without much fanfare. That only became entrenched when he endured what the coaches say was one of the worst month of fall practices they had ever seen. Holbrook said Marzilli had one hit in a month's time.
Around that time, still a couple of months before Marzilli's freshman season, Holbrook called Marzilli into his office. He told Marzilli he had a choice: He could be a guy who did not play at USC, or he could be a first-round draft pick. The talent was there, Holbrook assured him. It was a matter of what he did with it, and whether he believed that was true.
"It kind of hit me with a shock, I guess," Marzilli said. "It served as a little motivation for me."
Marzilli contributed some as a freshman, but he was not consistent at the plate. A lot of it, coaches have said, was mental.
But, with the team struggling for runs entering the NCAA tournament, Tanner shoved Marzilli into the lineup -- and into the leadoff spot, even though he had not hit there since the opening weekend of the season.
Marzilli responded by homering that night, and he went on to hit .419 in the postseason. He registered at least one hit in 11 of USC's 12 games on the team's road to the national title. His only hitless game was the Gamecocks' only NCAA tourney loss, in the CWS opener.
"He adapted well," Holmes said. "It was like he was born to do that. It was like he fit in. He was thrown in there and performed."
Marzilli said he couldn't explain exactly what happened, just that he was relaxed.
It took until mid-April for Marzilli to again experience that sensation, but it's in full swing. He has hits in 21 of his past 28 games, and 12 of those were multi-hit games. Again shifted to the top spot in the order for the regional, Marzilli had three hits, including a home run.
Now the Gamecocks are two wins from returning to the College World Series. Marzilli is rounding into Omaha form, just in time.
"Having been there," Marzilli said, "it just makes you want to get back even more."
COLUMBIA SUPER REGIONAL
At Carolina Stadium, Columbia
Saturday: Connecticut (45-18-1) vs. South Carolina (48-14), 6 p.m.
Sunday: Connecticut vs. South Carolina, 7 p.m.
Monday: Connecticut vs. South Carolina, 1, 4 or 7 p.m., if necessary