COLUMBIA — Chad Holbrook spent nearly two decades at North Carolina as a player and a coach. He was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference player there, he set the stolen base record there, he made three College World Series trips there. He and his wife Jennifer had their two sons in Chapel Hill.
But none of that will matter Wednesday, when South Carolina and North Carolina face off in a regular season baseball game for the first time in over a decade.
“I have a lot of great friends there, both in the sport of baseball and (out),” said Holbrook, South Carolina’s head coach, who is a 1993 UNC grad. “But it’s not about Chad Holbrook or a coach. It’s about South Carolina’s players and North Carolina’s players. Their program and our program. … I can check my ego at the door and kind of step aside and let that atmosphere come to the forefront.”
And it should be quite an atmosphere at BB&T Park in downtown Charlotte, which is a near-sellout for the 7 p.m. game between the fifth-ranked Gamecocks (28-5) and the 14th-ranked Tar Heels (23-9), which was postponed from Tuesday due to weather. It will be the first regular season meeting between the schools since a 2004 matchup in Fort Mill, although they’ve played eight times in the NCAA Tournament since.
“We can just relax and play. We’ve got everything to win there and nothing to lose,” Holbrook said. “We’ve played very well to this point. Let’s go play a marquee opponent. (It’s) two teams having a really, really good year. I think it’s great for the sport, I think it’s great for college baseball. I just think North and South Carolina should be there every year.”
The Gamecocks are coming off their third sweep of an SEC opponent in four conference weekends, this one capped by a 4-3 victory over Tennessee. Alex Destino, USC’s leading hitter, drove in the winning run in his only plate appearance after sitting more than a week with a sprained shoulder suffered while colliding with an outfield wall making a catch.
The Weaverville, N.C., native believes he’ll be ready to play Wednesday.
“I think it’s extremely realistic,” said Destino, hitting .365. “I’m going to do everything my body can to get me on the field, and I’m going to do a lot of talking with coach before then. But there’s no secret that’s a big game for me, and I can’t wait to play that team.”
Holbrook sounded hopeful that the sophomore outfielder would be available, at least as a designated hitter. “We’ll get him a couple of good days of treatment,” he said, “and hopefully he’s 100 percent ready to go for the rest of the season.”
Wednesday’s game is just the second regular season meeting between the two programs since 1988. Holbrook — whose counterpart at North Carolina, Mike Fox, is also a UNC grad — would like to see the Gamecocks and Tar Heels play more frequently. Wednesday’s game is the first of a two-year series in Charlotte.
“I’m hopeful that North Carolina and South Carolina play every year,” Holbrook said. “You have two marquee programs, two programs that have been to the College World Series a lot of times, and a lot of times recently. It’s great for our sport, it’s great for our two programs. I’m sure our players will be excited about getting on the bus and going up there.”