For Gamecocks, Omaha goal is bigger than SEC crowns

Posted by NEIL WHITE on April 28, 2014 

Joey Pankake

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com

Chad Holbrook likes to stay focused on the little picture.

Day after day, the South Carolina baseball coach prefers to talk about the next game ahead for his team instead of the ones down the road. He understands that when his players take care of business each step of the way the bigger picture will properly unfold.

At this stage of the season – 21 games into SEC play – fans tend to get fixated on the conference race, which is unusually tight this year. The Gamecocks, who jumped to No. 9 in the Baseball America top 25 poll on Monday, are in a logjam near the top of the conference standings.

They have a 12-9 mark in SEC play, behind No. 5 Florida (15-6), No. 12 Alabama (13-8), No. 11 Ole Miss (13-8) and No. 8 LSU (12-8) but ahead of No. 20 Vanderbilt (11-10) and Mississippi State (11-10). While Holbrook says he would love to claim an SEC regular-season title, he would rather think bigger than that if you force him to look ahead.

“Absolutely, that’s one of our goals. (But) if we don’t, that’s not the end of our season,” Holbrook said. “That’s not the ultimate goal. If you asked me if I’d rather play in the College World Series or win an SEC championship, I’ll take the College World Series 10 times out of 10 and twice on Sunday.”

That’s hard to argue.

Staying competitive in the conference race becomes more about positioning for the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks have reached the postseason 14 straight seasons starting in 2000 and made it to Omaha six times in that stretch, which included the national championship seasons of 2010 and 2011. In that time, they’ve won three SEC regular-season titles and one tournament championship.

The most significant thing about the regular season involves piling up as many wins as possible and building a resume that helps a team’s RPI, a figure used prominently when the NCAA seeds teams and selects host sites for its tournament.

Holbrook pointed out over the successful weekend against Alabama that his team’s record had it on track for a strong finish. The Gamecocks have won 34 with 11 left to play in the regular season before heading to Hoover, Ala., for the conference tournament.

“Hopefully, we get to the SEC tournament and we have a chance to get near 40 (wins),” he said. “That puts you in a good position because of who we play and who we’ve got left. Our RPI is going to remain pretty good if we win our fair share of games.”

Last week, the Gamecocks stood at No. 5 in the NCAA’s official RPI, and they’re not expected to move much after a 4-1 week that included the SEC series victory against the Crimson Tide. USC remains in strong shape for a Top 8 national seed, which ensures playing at home in the NCAA regional and Super Regional rounds.

How important is that? South Carolina is 16-0 in NCAA tournament games at Carolina Stadium.

The final three SEC series are against Georgia, Missouri and Vanderbilt. Holbrook is trying to get his team healthy, and not playing mid-week games this week will help.

“We know where we are from an adversity standpoint, from a health standpoint. We’re trying to manage things right now to keep ourselves in some conversations for postseason play,” Holbrook said. “That’s what we’re fighting to do. Could we go on a run and win seven or eight out of nine (remaining) conference games? Sure we could. But that’s not the focus for me.”

Going back to Omaha for the fourth time in five seasons is the focus.

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