Notebook: Back in the finals

OMAHA, Neb. -- South Carolina and Florida square off as the best team in the SEC East is finally decided with the national championship on the line. Look inside for news and notes on game one of the championship series.

South Carolina is nowhere near satisfied with just making it to the national championship series. The Gamecocks want to win.

But head coach Ray Tanner, who always preaches perspective to his players, also hasn't failed to recognize just what his team has accomplished this season, even if they don't take home the hardware again.

"It's very, very difficult," Tanner said Sunday of the road to Omaha. "To be in this situation today is just a tremendous accomplishment for both of our universities. And [for] these student athletes up here, it's exciting. It's on a great stage, and there's no better place to be this time of year than in Omaha."

Last season's historic run to the program's first ever title featured a South Carolina team that wasn't a national seed and lost its first game in Omaha before reeling off six straight.

While no one called the championship a fluke, and the Gamecocks had plenty of players back from that team, there was plenty of doubt that the Gamecocks could get back to that position.

An SEC East as strong as its ever been -- which included three of the four final teams in Omaha -- played into that belief. And the Gamecocks certainly had some question marks.

"I don't know if I really thought about coming back here yet," said ace pitcher Michael Roth of early in the season. "You know, we were just trying to go out there and find out who we are a little bit."

"The pitching staff, that was really the question," senior second baseman Scott Wingo said. "Because I knew we had the core group of guys coming back."

That core group and the emergence of pitchers Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas, Monday night's starter, have helped the Gamecocks get back to this point. The ability to deal with injury after injury has helped, too. And a never-say-die attitude that has spread from last year's team to this one.

"When you go into the season as the defending national champs, you always wonder from the outside looking in," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "Are they going to be complacent with what they've done in the past, and they haven't. But to do what they've accomplished, to come back after winning it last year, it says a great deal about the competitive spirit of their program."

And while Tanner wants his team to keep perspective. The Gamecocks don't think they're done yet.

Asked if the Gamecocks amazed themselves, Wingo said that wasn't the case. Not yet, anyway.

"I don't know if we amaze ourselves, because I mean we just go out there and we fight every inning," he said. "I'd say getting back to back national championships is pretty amazing. So if anything amazed, I'd say that."

No pressure, Rook

Ironically, Koumas' first career start came in Gainesville March 26 against then-No. 1 Florida. That was pressure enough for a freshman who was asked at the last second to fill in for an injured Steven Neff.

That won't compare to the pressure he'll face Monday night against the Gators in game one of the CWS championship series against Florida ace Hudson Randall.

"One of the better games he had earlier in the year was in Gainesville when he pitched with short notice," Tanner said. "His stuff is good enough. He's certainly talented enough, but as a coach you are concerned about if he's able to harness his emotions and all those things that come into play."

But the former Gatorade Player of the Year in South Carolina turned down the major leagues for a chance to pitch in such situations. And he's proved to be a big part of the Gamecocks' success this season.

"I'll probably be a little nervous," Koumas admitted. "But hopefully that goes away after a couple of pitches."

Despite the fact he won't have pitched since the regionals, Tanner does have confidence in his young pitcher.

"Forrest has been chomping at the bit," Tanner said. "We won the Super Regionals. He was scheduled to go. Didn't pitch. His bullpens have been great. Coach Meyers has done a great job keeping him there. But he hasn't been on this stage that Hudson Randall has.

"And that's just the way it is, though. That's the match up. So we'll go with him, do the best we can, and if he's not as good as we want him to be, we'll go to the bullpen."

"Just take it like any other game," Koumas said of the advice his teammates have given him. "Get out there and do what I do best. If they put it in play, we've got a good defense behind me and they'll take care of it."

Price in play?

South Carolina closer Matt Price threw 95 pitches in the Gamecocks 13-inning marathon win over Virginia that got them to the championship series.

Tanner quickly ruled Price unlikely to be ready for Monday night. He reiterated that Sunday morning.

But Tanner left the door slightly cracked Sunday afternoon.

"Price told me earlier, 'Don't rule me out,' because I think he heard i made a comment that hes unlikely for Monday," he said. "I don't think he accepted that that easy. But we've got to use good judgment there to see where he is."

Price didn't necessarily say he was good to go Sunday but did want to see how he felt Monday before Tanner makes a definite ruling.

"I feel fine," Price said. "I threw (Sunday) and I was able to stretch it out a little bit. Hopefully (Monday) I'm fully healthy to throw at least an inning or so."

Price also added that if there's a save to be had and the Gamecocks need just three outs, then that may also change things.

"I would talk to Tanner and be like, 'I want the ball,'" he said. "As a closer, you always want to be in that spot, being able to close out a game, especially in the world series, it's going to be awesome."

Mutual respect

Tanner and O'Sullivan haven't always had the exact same philosophies about how to successfully run their programs.

But one thing was clear Sunday: the two coaches have a ton of respect for each other.

O'Sullivan said of Tanner: "Well, the first thing is they're very well coached. And they play with a great deal of confidence. And I think that's the thing that probably is going to be the most interesting thing these next two or three games is we're playing with a great deal of confidence as well.

"I called it the other day, it's swag versus swag. I mean, it's going to be one of those things where both teams are playing very well. Both teams are very well coached. Coach Tanner's teams never give you anything. Their pitchers are very good at getting ground balls, double play situations. They got different looks.

"Their hitters are very, very competitive. They don't swing at balls. They're out of the strike zone for the most part. That all starts from the top with Coach Tanner. And his team there's a reason why every year they're ranked where they're ranked and they end up where they end up. That's because he does a great job.

"I'm not saying that because he's sitting to my left. The fact of the matter is that he's kind of set the standard in the SEC. And we're just hoping to be successful like a South Carolina club or an LSU club, we want to get to that point. And, like I said, this would be a great challenge for us, but I think it should be a great series."

Tanner said of O'Sullivan: "This guy's got some serious passion, enthusiasm for this game. And he can coach. So there's no surprise to me that he's been as successful as he's been in such a short time. And last year, when we got home, I got a note from Mr. Foley, very, very nice note, congratulating us.

"I wrote him back, and I said: Your team is outstanding, your coach is the best, and you will win a national championship in baseball sooner than later. Be careful what you say. So I said that.

"But there was never any doubt in my mind. There was never a doubt. This guy's the best. He has been for a long, long time, now he's a young head coach. And just does it the right way. They get after it. And you don't want to lose, but you like being in the environment where it's done the right way. And that's the way they do it."

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