“I’m proud of our conference for carrying the flag,” South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said. “I think a lot of conferences look to the SEC for a blueprint. We have a commitment from presidents, athletic directors and facilities. Players like to play in our league because of the exposure.”
This year marks the first time a conference has had three of the last four teams in the College World Series. The other remaining team is the overall No. 1 seed Virginia, who has to beat South Carolina twice to advance to the championship series. Two teams from the same conference have never met in the championship series, but that will happen if the Gamecocks beat Virginia once in the next two games.
The difference for the SEC teams is on the mound. In a year where scoring runs has been at a premium, it’s not a coincidence that three of the four teams left are in the top five of ERA, with Vanderbilt third at a 2.38 and South Carolina fifth at 2.53. Florida isn’t much further behind with a 2.95 team ERA.
“There are no surprises from a pitching standpoint,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “We’ve seen everything you can – right, left, off-speed, velocity, sidearm, different slots. And the pitching we’ve seen from Florida and South Carolina is as good as anybody we’re going to see at this stage of the season.”
The regular season was a battle for the three. They all came into the season ranked in the top ten. Some publications ranked Florida No. 1 coming into the year while Vanderbilt and South Carolina were in the middle of the top ten. It didn’t matter where the teams were in the rankings, all three felt the expectations before the season started.
South Carolina was coming off its first national championship in school history and returned plenty of weapons at the plate and on the mound. Vanderbilt had arguably the most talented roster in recent history, only comparable with their 2006 roster that had David Price, Casey Weathers, Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty. Despite all the talented players that came through Nashville, the Commodores were still searching for their first trip to the College World Series in program history. Florida brought back a roster made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores in 2010 with lofty expectations for 2011.
With all of that was expected of each team, none of the three have blinked all season. Each team has experienced a two-game losing streak during the year, but that’s as long as it went.
Even in conference play, the teams stayed within mere games of each other all season. South Carolina beat the Gators and Commodores in their regular season series, and the Gators took two-of-three from Vanderbilt in Nashville. There were no sweeps, and there was only one blowout in those games, coming as Vanderbilt got its lone win against Florida 14-1.
The teams started the year with lofty expectations, and they stayed close from start to finish.
“That’s the case every year, but I’ve never seen three teams that, from start to finish, have held on the way the three of us have this season,” Corbin said. “We were all right in the mix in the beginning, we were all right in the mix in the middle, we were all right in the mix at the end and now we’re all here in Omaha and nobody has blinked.”
They haven’t blinked in Omaha, either. The only loss that any of the three teams has experienced came as Florida beat Vanderbilt 3-1 on Tuesday. Against non-SEC teams in Omaha, the trio is 5-0.
Part of that comes from the difficult matchups within the SEC. The Vanderbilt team even told Corbin recently that their series against Kentucky, who finished second to last in the conference, was one of the tougher ones this season.
The three SEC teams haven’t lost an NCAA Tournament game to a team from outside the conference. The trio’s only loss came when Florida lost game two of its Super Regional to Mississippi State. Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who was not made available for comment since after Tuesday morning’s game, regrouped his team after that loss and the team won the decisive game to earn a spot in Omaha.
“We hammer each other all throughout the year,” Corbin said. “The conference challenges you for how tough situations like this and gives you a lot of confidence.”
It fits well that the three teams will decide a national champion on college baseball’s biggest stage. With home field advantage and holding pitchers during conference tournament keeping the teams from always playing at their best, the new TD Ameritrade Park will be the venue for all three teams at the top of their game.
“It has been the entire year that (the three teams) have been there,” Tanner said. “We go into the start and we’re all a game apart. Then the sixth weekend, we’re a game apart. Then Vandy takes over, we’re up there and Florida takes over. It was that way throughout the entire year. It’s just consistent clubs, and it speaks volumes about the quality of baseball week in and week out in the Southeastern Conference.”
The only week that matters now for the conference is the last week of the season.
Click here to find out the latest news, notes and rumors about your favorite baseball team.