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Gamecocks head to SEC baseball tournament hoping to avoid Hoover headaches

Gamecocks Hoover Met

The SEC Tournament hasn't been a Gamecock showcase over the years. AP/Brynn Anderson

COLUMBIA — It’s a phrase that not many associated with South Carolina baseball ever want to hear.

“They’re going to need some help in Hoover.”

The No. 25 Gamecocks (33-20) begin the SEC baseball tournament in Hoover, Ala., on May 25 knowing that a win or two could really help their chances to host an NCAA regional next week.

It’s not that USC’s opportunity is dead in the water. On the contrary, the Gamecocks have a winning record in the SEC (16-14) and an RPI of 14. And with some of the other 20 potential host schools struggling of late, there's a good chance Founders Park is already locked in as a host.

But the Gamecocks don’t know that it’s certain. It probably would have been had they gotten two more runs to finish the regular season, but a 5-4 loss to Tennessee on May 22 gave the Volunteers the series.

“I still think we’re one of the top 16 teams in the country, I think that any team that’s played us of late would agree with that,” coach Mark Kingston said. “I’m still going to hold out hope that we’re one of the 16 host sites because I think we deserve it.”

So Hoover, the Gamecocks’ dark history in the tournament within its minor-league stadium dimensions, once again rises on the schedule as a chance to help.

A victory over Alabama on March 25 gets them to the double-elimination part of the tournament and their first game there would give them another crack at Tennessee. Again, even with a loss to the Crimson Tide and thus a quick exit from the SEC Tournament, they may be judged to have already done enough to host.

Yet winning can’t hurt.

“We’re going to attack every game the same,” USC center fielder Brady Allen said. “We just want to prove that we can be a top 10 team.”

There have been several of those in the Gamecocks’ history. Not many played very well in Hoover.

It should be made crystal clear that many of the times that USC went to the SEC Tournament, it didn’t have to win. In several years, the Gamecocks already knew they would host an NCAA Regional, knew they were already a top 8 national seed, and knew they didn't need to win at Hoover.

That plays into the 26-40 record USC has posted in the SEC Tournament since it started being played in Hoover in 1998. And the Gamecocks went 4-0 in 2004, the only time they’ve won the SEC Tournament.

From 2005-14, USC was 8-20 in Hoover but it never affected the team’s NCAA Tournament results. The three years in the middle, 2010-12, ended in the College World Series and the Gamecocks lifted that trophy in the first two.

But from 2015-19, a stretch that saw USC miss the NCAA tournament three times, the Gamecocks went 4-8 in the SEC tournament. Three of the four wins came in 2017, when coach Chad Holbrook’s last team, fighting for its postseason life, posted a 3-2 record in Hoover, the best mark since 2004 and the end of a four-year streak where the Gamecocks didn’t win a tournament game.

That year’s Gamecocks were still denied the NCAA tournament. Ten days after elimination, Holbrook resigned.

Kingston went to Hoover in 2018 with a 32-22 team (not that far off from this year’s team) feeling assured the Gamecocks were in the NCAA tournament. They won one game in Hoover, made the big tournament and ended the year one win from the CWS.

In 2019, the Gamecocks made the SEC tournament (only the top 12 teams in the league make it). They were 28-27 and their only hope of making the NCAA tournament was winning the SEC tournament. They went 0-1.

The Gamecocks will play in an NCAA regional next week. There is no doubt about that.

USC can make sure it’s at home by winning a game or games this week. Of course Kingston will be scoreboard-checking other potential hosts once the Gamecocks finish.

But the later in the week his team is playing, he’ll know his mission was already accomplished.

“We’re battle-tested, we’re hardened, and once the postseason starts, it’s a matter of trying to take advantage of all these lessons,” Kingston said. “I think we’ve challenged ourselves more than anybody in the country, then combine that with having the toughest conference schedule, because we played all the best teams, I think this team’s earned that right. I hope at some point they get rewarded and get over that last hump that we keep talking about.”

Weins to start

Junior right-hander C.J. Weins will start against Alabama. Weins has started the last two midweek games after replacing Jack Mahoney, who underwent Tommy John surgery last week.

Weins is 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA in 9 ⅓ innings over five appearances this year. He has struck out 11 and walked nine.

Beaten up

Third baseman Brennan Milone (hamstring) and shortstop George Callil (oblique) are day-to-day for the SEC Tournament. They could go either way at this point, Kingston said.

They each missed the Tennessee series, which put Jeff Heinrich at third and Michael Robinson at short. Robinson was a bit sick at practice on May 24, while second baseman Braylen Wimmer also isn't 100 percent, but should be OK.

Kingston stressed that since the Gamecocks know they’re in the NCAA Tournament, their SEC Tournament plans for the duo will be whatever keeps them in good shape for the next tournament.

Freshman right-hander Will Sanders is good to pitch against Alabama and/or the rest of the tournament after taking two line drives off his legs in the final game against Tennessee.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded. Want the inside scoop on Gamecock athletics? Subscribe to Gamecocks Now.

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