USC-Clemson rivalry hinges on desire and fortune

nwhite@thestate.comFebruary 28, 2013 

South Carolina will host Clemson in an NCAA regional for the second straight season.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

  • GAMECOCKS VS. TIGERS

    Who: USC (6-1) vs. Clemson (5-2)

    Games: Friday at Clemson, 6:30 p.m.; Saturday at Greenville, 2 p.m.; Sunday at USC, 3 p.m.

    TV: Saturday’s game is on MeTV in Columbia, Channel 25.4 and TWC channel 106.

Over the past three seasons, the South Carolina baseball team has reached the championship finals of the College World Series, winning a pair of national titles. Along the way, the Gamecocks have done something else to put big smiles on the faces of their fans.

They have won nine of 13 meetings with archrival and fellow collegiate baseball power Clemson. Four of those victories have come in the NCAA tournament — two in the 2010 CWS and two more in the 2012 Columbia regional. Both pair of victories ended the Tigers’ seasons.

But you’re not going to hear USC coach Chad Holbrook crowing about the recent success.

“They’ve got great players and great coaches. They’ve been a great team for a long time. We think we have a pretty good tradition as well,” Holbrook said. “We’ve just won a few, and a lot of it is because we’ve been very fortunate. Baseball is a game of breaks, and we’ve had some breaks.”

Holbrook, the new head coach who has faced the Tigers many times as a player and assistant coach at North Carolina and an assistant at USC, realizes things could have turned out differently, especially considering the teams have played seven one-run games in that stretch, with five of them resulting in South Carolina wins.

“You get two really good baseball teams, and you’re butting heads against them, someone’s going to lose,” he said. “It’s not because we’ve been that much better. It’s because the games have been in the balance and we’ve made a critical play here or there and a critical pitch here or there to win a game.”

Many of those close games were decided by USC players making big plays. Michael Roth pitches a complete game out of nowhere in the 2010 CWS, and first baseman Christian Walker makes a great play on a hard-hit ball the next night. Jake Williams blasts a three-run homer at Fluor Field in 2011, as Matt Price leaves the tying run at third base. Evan Marzilli makes a spectacular game-saving catch in extra innings at Riley Park last season, and LB Dantzler drills the game-winning single in the 12th inning of the first regional victory.

Senior closer Tyler Webb has been around for all nine wins the past three seasons, and he attributes the success to a combination of grit and good fortune.

“I feel like our team, like (former) coach (Ray) Tanner said, would battle to the end,” Webb said. “You’ve got to be a little lucky, too. They’re a great program, and hopefully we can continue our success. But it’s not going to be an easy task this weekend.”

Dantzler, a junior-college transfer last season, quickly discovered the significance of the rivalry to the fans. He also has seen how the players embrace the expectations of delivering in big moments.

“It’s how our program has been. Guys just step up,” Dantzler said. “It’s the attitude we have.”

He called his game-winning hit in the winners’ bracket tournament game against the Tigers last season especially satisfying.

“I like to think in that situation that any big hit would have felt good, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t mean a little bit more against Clemson,” said Dantzler, who called this weekend’s series a good measuring stick for the No. 7 Gamecocks (6-1).

The Tigers (5-2), who lead the series 169-129-2 dating to 1899, are looking to establish themselves as well. As Holbrook understands, things like win-loss records, rankings, and momentum have little meaning when high-powered rivals meet.

“This series showcases what college baseball is all about, from emotions to how important the series is to the way the games are played,” Holbrook said. “You have two terrific baseball programs playing each other in the same state. The three stadiums will all be sold out. It’s a great opportunity for our players. We’re very lucky to be a part of this rivalry.”

The players echo that sentiment, and they’re ready to keep making big plays.

“You definitely want to perform well on this big weekend with this opponent and the whole state watching,” Webb said.

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