SEC East foes play for national title
Published: Sunday, June 26, 2011 at 11:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 26, 2011 at 11:16 p.m.
OMAHA, Neb. — His team had just won the College World Series and coach Ray Tanner was basking in the glow of changing the culture at South Carolina.
That's when he received a note from Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley congratulating Tanner on the championship.
“I wrote him back and said, ‘Your team is outstanding, your coach is the best and you will win a national championship in baseball sooner than later,' ” Tanner said. “Be careful what you say.”
For Florida to win its first national title in baseball, the Gators will have to go through Tanner's team, which is trying to win back-to-back national crowns. The two teams begin their best-of-3 series today at 8 p.m. at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
On Sunday, the two coaches posed with this year's championship trophy while photographers snapped away. A couple of seats to his right, Preston Tucker sat staring at the trophy.
“Obviously, it's exciting just seeing how close you are to getting it,” Tucker said. “Again, it's just a three-game series. It's there for the taking. Whoever wants it more is going to end up with the trophy.”
The South Carolina players already have one from last year. But it doesn't mean they want it any less.
“Obviously, the trophy has 2011 engraved on it,” said Gamecock pitcher Michael Roth. “And we'd like to have it.”
South Carolina took the regular-season series from the Gators in Gainesville, but that was early in the conference season. Last year, Florida won two-of-three games in Columbia to capture the SEC title.
“Last year, it was tough to see a team dogpile on our field,” Roth said.
But as Florida catcher Mike Zunino said, “They had the last laugh. They won the (national) championship.”
So much has changed since that first meeting between the teams March 25-27. And there is a lot more on the line.
“Everyone's not quite figured out their lineups,” said Tucker. “Everyone's trying to figure out what role they play. I know us and South Carolina are both different teams.”
But they are the last two teams standing.
The two teams come into the final series with different offensive approaches, but solid pitching and defense.
“We understand who we are as a team,” Tanner said. “You've got Mike and Preston over there that blast a three-run homer and take the team out. We don't do that so much.
“We've got to hang around and compete and stay in position to win and we do win a lot of games from the fifth inning on. That's who we've been. And certainly with Coach (Kevin) O'Sullivan's bullpen, they win late and that's why they've won so many games, too.”
The two teams shared the SEC regular-season title with Vanderbilt with 22-8 records. South Carolina set an NCAA record with its 14th-straight win in tournament play Friday. Both teams went unbeaten in bracket play at the CWS.
All that matters now is who wins this series.
“We're playing with a great deal of confidence and they play with a great deal of confidence,” O'Sullivan said. “I called it the other day, it's swag vs. swag.”
Hudson Randall, who beat Texas in Florida's first game of the CWS, will get the start tonight. Forrest Koumas, who hasn't pitched since the NCAA Regionals, gets the start for South Carolina.
“I see (Randall) in my sleep a lot,” Tanner said. “He's special. He's fun to watch. He's a pitcher. His pitchability is off the charts.
“The thing I like about where we are now and getting a chance to play Coach O'Sullivan's team, you know if all you guys went away and there were no fans, we were on the back sandlot, we flipped a coin and said who was home and who was visitors, I'm not sure it would be any different. I think they love to play. We love to play. There's a lot more at stake. But it's really genuine baseball. Let's go. Let's strap it on.”