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Stakes high in USC-Florida series

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Morris: Stakes high in USC-Florida series

South Carolina fans have experienced a taste of the big time on two occasions during the past six months, mere nibbles of what it is like to compete at the highest level of collegiate athletics.

There was the football team’s near-stunning upset of No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Florida in November at Williams-Brice Stadium. Then there was the men’s basketball team’s titantic triumph against Kentucky in January, the program’s first against a top-ranked team.

Now comes the real deal for the USC athletics program. The sixth-ranked baseball team plays No. 4 Florida in a three-game series beginning tonight at Carolina Stadium. At stake is the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and a top-eight national seed in the NCAA tournament.

Because the two teams are tied atop the SEC East Division standings with the league’s best records (20-7), the series is winner-takes-all.

You cannot diminish the importance of winning an SEC championship because they have been so elusive to USC in every sport across the board. Heck, even with USC’s consistent success in baseball, the Gamecocks count only two SEC regular-season titles (2000 and 2002) and one league tournament crown (2004).

Equally important this weekend is the NCAA tournament national seeding because it ensures a host site for the regionals and super regionals in USC’s quest to reach the College World Series.

The weekend series represents what the athletics department is striving for in every sport: championship competition in top-level facilities.

“We talk about the Garnet Way,” Eric Hyman, USC’s athletics director, said of his department’s slogan. “Building the facilities and doing what we’re trying to do, this captures it right now. This is what we’re trying to do.

“You can’t ask for anything better, to be battling for a championship at the end of the regular season, in your baseball stadium . . . You couldn’t ask for a better setting.”

So excited is Hyman, he fired off a letter early this week to Gamecock Club members. The memo’s underlying message was that the weekend baseball series verifies Hyman’s six-year push to provide USC athletes with SEC-level facilities so they can compete for championships.

There is no better example of how the two go hand-in-hand.

Ray Tanner’s baseball team won occasional SEC championships at Sarge Frye Field, and might have continued to do so. But there was little doubting that USC was not keeping up with the SEC Joneses when it came to its baseball stadium.

So, Hyman put a new stadium atop his list of facilities improvements, and the $34.6 million ballpark was completed for the 2009 season. Now Tanner can recruit prospects on the reality — not merely the promise — of playing in one of the nation’s finest college baseball stadiums.

After this weekend, Tanner also can tell recruits that when his club competes for championships and in the postseason, they will play before sellout crowds. The only tickets remaining are standing-room only, and it is likely that season-ticket holders will fill the seats that have largely sat empty during the regular season.

“All I’ve been hearing about the last couple of days is getting the weekend sold out,” said junior outfielder Whit Merrifield. “Standing room is limited. It’s going to be rocking. I can’t wait to see all the fans show up.”

There are no national television cameras for the series, but all three games will be televised regionally. That is a statement about the appeal of college baseball being more regional than national.

Nowhere in the country will there be more excitement surrounding the game than for three days at Carolina Stadium. Tanner admits this is what he envisioned a decade ago at the advent of rumblings for a new stadium.

Immediately following USC’s victory against Furman on Tuesday, Tanner was ready to turn his attention to the Florida series and begin contemplating the enormity of the weekend showdown.

“The thing that is important to me right now is that this is exciting,” Tanner said. “There is a chance we’ll have three sellouts. There’s going to be a fever pitch. It’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be electric enthusiasm.”

Ever the coach, Tanner said he must temper that enthusiasm with his team. He talked to his players Tuesday night about the importance of maintaining an even keel with their emotions throughout the series. Tanner said he will take the same message to his club before tonight’s game.

That leaves it up to USC fans to get caught up in the excitement, to go overboard with their emotions and to experience watching their team perform on the big stage of college athletics.

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Gators get 1st seed in the sec tourney in hoover alabama.

Kentucky needed to beat UGA in this last weekend series. We are going to double our sec wins (just shows how bad our year has been) it looks like. We knocked them out of any contention for Hoover due to winning last night 8-6 and winning today 20-0.

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