CLEMSON — Liberty is hoping it isn’t just a formality.
Clemson won’t take its first opponent for granted, even with a rivalry renewed with South Carolina perhaps just a day away.
A mindset trickling down from head coach Jack Leggett, the NCAA Columbia Regional’s No. 2-seeded Tigers (39-20) insist they’re focusing on the nine innings they have to play today and no others.
No. 3 seed Liberty (34-27), along with Saint Louis (South Carolina’s day one opponent), are hoping to derail the presumed tantalizing Clemson-USC showdown. The Flames earned their way to the NCAA bracket automatically by upending Campbell on Saturday for the Big South championship. Liberty triumphed in all five of its win-or-go-home dates in the league tournament on its home field.
“Any team can play with any team in the country,” Clemson catcher Garrett Boulware said. “We know those are one of those teams that can beat us if we don’t play as hard as we can. We’ve got to play them as hard as we’d play South Carolina.”
Outfielder Thomas Brittle, like his teammates had said earlier this week, wasn’t particularly concerned outwardly with even the prospect of facing South Carolina in the regional.
“I wouldn’t say there’s really any added motivation,” Brittle said. “At this point, every game is big, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. You’ve just got to get the win before we can worry about who we’re facing on Saturday.”
Getting the ball for Clemson is freshman Zack Erwin, a lanky left-hander promoted from the bullpen within the past month. In five starts, he’s 3-1 with a 3.90 ERA, including a game performance against top-ranked North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.
“We’ve been trying to build his maturity and confidence level up, and he was doing a real good job for us in relief, so we decided to give Zack an opportunity,” Leggett said. “He’s deceptive, he’s got a feel for a breaking ball, changeup and fastball. Holds runners on pretty well, which is a good thing (vs. Liberty.).”
Liberty is 7-12 against major-conference foes this season, losing two of three in a season-opening series at then-No. 5-ranked South Carolina in mid-February. Liberty actually leads the all-time series with Clemson 3-2, though they haven’t met since 2000.
“I’m not overlooking them, I know that. I don’t know who else is, but I’m not,” Leggett said. “I’m immensely concerned with the (Liberty) game. That’s where my thought is.
“The best thing that can help us is if we lock in on what we have to do to win, and not worry about where we are or who we’re playing — try to take out all the outside distractions.”