Rivalry or Not, Saturday Matchup Looms Large

OMAHA, Neb. - Coaches usually shy away from talk of budding rivalries, and Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan and South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner are no different. It's hard to avoid how important the Florida-South Carolina games have become in two years. Saturday night will be no different, as it's the fourth postseason and tenth overall meeting between the two teams in the last two years.

"I don't know if rivalry is the right word," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "I think there is mutual respect on both sides."

In the last three seasons, the Gators and South Carolina have split the 12 games that they have played. In those 12 games, the Gamecocks have outscored Florida 53-47. No matter which way you look at it, the teams have played each other close and delivered important series wins on both sides.

In 2010, Florida traveled to Columbia with the two teams tied atop the SEC standings going into the final conference weekend. The Gators won the first two games and rested their starters on the third day after clinching the conference title.

Last season is the one most remember. The Gamecocks swept Florida in two games to clinch a national championship at the College World Series.

No matter the meeting or the setting, there's always a different feel when the two teams square off. It's the reason ESPN pushed the game to primetime (9 p.m. EST) on Saturday, so the rest of the country could get a glimpse.

"We've had some good games and good battles, but rivalry does sometimes have a negative connotation," South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said. "I think it's all about respect as it is up and down our league, just go out and play. I think the players on both sides really enjoy it. Nobody likes to lose, of course, but you really enjoy it."

Tanner isn't surprised at the rapid turnaround of the Florida program since O'Sullivan took over. The two were already familiar from the time O'Sullivan spent as the pitching coach at Clemson.

"I knew that when Coach O'Sullivan went to Florida, they were headed to the top," Tanner said. "When I heard that Jeremy Foley hired Kevin, my response was ‘dang,' because I knew what was coming.

"He's excelled. He's excelled as a player. He's excelled as an assistant coach, and it doesn't get any better. His impact on the Gators is evident."

The Gamecocks bring a 21-game NCAA Tournament winning streak into Saturday's game. They've also won 11 straight games in Omaha en route to back-to-back national championships. The streak has turned Columbia, S.C, into the mecca of college baseball in recent years.

That's what O'Sullivan admires about Tanner the most. His teams always play their best baseball at the end of the season, and that's exactly what happened this season.

"Everybody is going to have their bumps in the road, but the thing that's been remarkable is Ray gets his teams to play the best at the end of the year," O'Sullivan said. "That is our goal as coaches to try to do that. It has been a great run for him, his coaches and his players for sure."

The Florida players haven't spent time talking about ending South Carolina's streak. At this point, it's above moving one win closer to a national championship. That doesn't mean the Florida players haven't taken notice of how tough the streak is to accomplish.

"That's tough to do," Florida reliever Greg Larson said. "It's unbelievable. They've just found ways to win. Watching their games against Clemson and Oklahoma, they find ways to get it done."

The players and coaches have spent the week, and some parts of the year, trying to downplay the rivalry. There's no doubt that it has turned into one of the top matchups in the country. Whatever title goes on it, there's a reason college baseball fans, no matter their interest, will tune in on Saturday to watch the two programs go at it.

"I've got a great deal of respect for Ray and his program," O'Sullivan said. "Every time you play them, you have to play your best. Obviously, Saturday night will be no different."

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