Regional Preview: The Road To Omaha Begins

With the SEC Tournament crown on its head, and the National # 2 seed in its pocket, USC opens the NCAA Tournament this weekend by hosting a four-team double elimination regional that features UNC, Coastal Carolina and The Citadel as roadblocks. SC will face The Citadel Friday at 7:PM., while UNC and CCU open the regional at 3:PM Friday. If USC wins the Regional, it will host the winner of the ECU Regional next weekend in the Super at Sarge Frye Field. So what should we expect? ...

If it's early June than it must be time for South Carolina to host a four-team NCAA Regional at Sarge Frye Field. For the fourth time in five years the Gamecocks have been named as one of the 16 hosts for the Regionals. USC has advanced past the Regionals into the Super Regionals for four straight years. Look for that trend to continue this year.

Here's a preview of each of the four teams participating in the NCAA Regional in Columbia this weekend. The action gets underway Friday at 3:00 p.m. when No. 2 seed North Carolina plays No. 3 seed Coastal Carolina. No. 1 seed South Carolina will face intrastate rival The Citadel at 7:00 Friday. The action continues with three games Saturday (11:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) and at least one game Sunday (1:30 p.m.).

NO. 1 SOUTH CAROLINA (45-15)

The Gamecocks are one of the hottest teams in the country. The victory in the SEC Tournament earned USC the national No. 2 seed behind Texas. Ray Tanner is a master at getting his club to peak at the right time. That's why USC has participated in the College World Series the last two years and has advanced as far as the Super Regional four straight years.

OFFENSE: This is clearly Landon Powell's team now. The senior catcher enjoyed a solid senior season (.356, 19 HR, 64 RBI), and boosted his draft status considerably. Rightfielder Brendan Winn (.329-18-63) posted nearly identical numbers to Powell. Steve Tolleson (.331) has fought back from injuries and returned to form. His ninth-inning, game-tying homer against Ole Miss in the opening game of the SEC Tournament will go down in Gamecock lore. Michael Campbell (.314-14-47) and Steve Pearce (.314-16-54) posted good numbers and can carry a team when they get hot. Davy Gregg (.317) may be one of the best No.9 hitters in the nation.

PITCHING: The regular season and SEC Tournament revealed that USC has one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country. In a minor surprise, Aaron Rawl (11-4, 4.44 ERA) will start Friday's regional opener against The Citadel. Rawl is a bulldog who works quickly and never gives in to a hitter. If Rawl can pitch deep into the game against the Bulldogs, that will leave Matt Campbell (8-4, 3.07), Arik Hempy (3-1, 3.33), Billy Buckner (6-2, 3.04) for the rest of the regional, not to mention Chad Blackwell (15 saves, 2.92 ERA), who had four saves in the conference tournament. Say a prayer for USC's opponents.

ASSESSMENT: There has been a lot of talk in the media about how difficult this regional will be for USC. Don't be swayed by such nonsense. The fact of the matter is that the three clubs in USC's bracket at the SEC tournament provided stiffer competition than the teams in this Regional will. If USC plays like it did last weekend in Birmingham (especially the pitchers), the Gamecocks will roll right into the Super Regional.

NO. 2 NORTH CAROLINA (41-19)

Let's face it. Columbia was the last place North Carolina wanted to go for the NCAA tournament. This will mark the third straight year UNC has played at Sarge Frye Field in the post-season. USC swept UNC in the 2003 Super Regional.

OFFENSE: The UNC offense is highlighted by the tandem of rightfielder Marshall Hubbard (.365-16-79) and catcher Chris Iannetta (.342-15-68). Sammy Hewitt (11 HR, 53 K's) is a classic feast or famine hitter. The 79 RBI by Hubbard, named a first-team All-America by USA Today/Sports Weekly, is the second highest in UNC history. The school record is 81 RBI. UNC batted .357 and scored 53 runs in five games at the ACC Tournament. The team BA for the season is .298 with 66 HR in 60 games.

PITCHING: The UNC hurlers are young (21 of the 41 wins are credited to freshman pitchers) and talented. ACC Freshman of the Year Daniel Bard (8-3, 3.73 ERA) leads the staff. Should USC and UNC meet Saturday, it is likely the Gamecocks will face Garry Bakker, a junior righthander with a 5-5 record and 3.39 ERA. Bakker has a 1.58 ERA in his last six starts, and has allowed only seven earned runs in his last 40 innings. Michael Gross (7 saves) is the closer.

ASSESSMENT: While the UNC players may be a bit distraught over the prospect of being eliminated from post-season play before a hostile crowd in Columbia yet again, the Tar Heels remain a good team and are certainly capable of erasing some bad Columbia memories. Just don't count on it, as the minds of the young UNC players may be elsewhere.

NO. 3 COASTAL CAROLINA (40-21)

The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers may be the third best college baseball team in the State of South Carolina. CCU is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, having won four straight Big South titles. CCU defeated Birmingham Southern Sunday in the winner-take-all championship game.

OFFENSE: The hitting star is Big South Player of the Year Mike Costanzo, who leads CCU in most major categories, including BA (.365), HR (21), and RBI (73), from the DH spot. Costanzo had one-third of CCU's homer total for the season. Shortstop Brett Grandstrand (an appropriate surname for someone who attends college in Horry County) and catcher Chad Oxendine (.313-2-35) will contribute. CCU's team BA is .293 with 63 homers in 61 games.

PITCHING: Steven Carter, the Big South Tournament MVP, is 12-2 with a 3.77 ERA. Fortunately for USC, Carter will get the call Friday against UNC, so the Gamecocks will not have to face him Saturday should USC and CCU meet in the winners bracket final. Jake Hurry (9-3, 3.60 ERA) could get the call Saturday. Carter and Hurry both started a team-high 15 games this season. The closer is Byron Binda (9 saves).

ASSESSMENT: The Chanticleers are a dangerous team, and the Tars Heels know it. USC could easily be playing CCU in the winners bracket game Saturday afternoon. CCU has won at least 40 games for four straight years, and enter the Regional with nine victories in its last 10 games. I smell an "upset".

NO. 4 THE CITADEL (38-26)

Unlike CCU, The Citadel Bulldogs are quite familiar with Sarge Frye Field. The Bulldogs arrive in Columbia as the Southern Conference tournament champions, and will be making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2001. USC defeated The Citadel twice this season by scores of 5-2 and 6-1 (10 innings).

OFFENSE: The Bulldogs are not blessed with a lot of power (42 homers in 64 games) but they do hit for a high average (team BA is .299). Chip Cannon (.353-16 HR-65 RBI) is the only legitimate power threat. Sophomore CF Matt Covington (.309-0-30) tied a Southern Conference tournament record with 13 hits.

PITCHING: The Citadel won the Southern Conference tournament with strong pitching. The Bulldogs recorded a tournament record five complete games. The Gamecocks caught a break when The Citadel announced Wednesday that staff ace Jonathan Ellis (1103, 2.26 ERA), who threw over 270 pitches in two complete games during last week's Southern Conference Tournament, would not start Friday's game. Instead, sophomore Ken Egleton (8-2, 4.07 ERA) should get the starting nod against USC.

ASSESSMENT: While some fret over USC's opening round game against the Bulldogs, there is little justification for concern. Yes, The Citadel won 38 games this season (3-9 against NCAA Tourney teams), but USC has dominated the Bulldogs over the years, including a 16-0 victory in the 2001 NCAA Regional at Sarge Frye Field. There is no reason for that domination not to continue Friday. It should be another two and out for the Bulldogs.

REGIONAL SCHEDULE Fri. 6/4 – Game 1: North Carolina v. Coastal Carolina (2 p.m.)

Fri. 6/4 – Game 2: South Carolina v. The Citadel (7:00 p.m.)

Sat. 6/5 – Game 3: Loser Game 1 v. Loser Game 2 (11:00 a.m.)

Sat. 6/5 – Game 4: Winner Game 1 v. Winner Game 2 (3:00 p.m.)

Sat. 6/5 – Game 5: Winner Game 3 v. Loser Game 4 (7:00 p.m.)

Sun. 6/6 – Game 6: Winner Game 5 v. Winner Game 4 (1:30 p.m.)

Sun. 6/6 – Game 7: Winner Game 6 v. Loser Game 6 (If Nec.)(5:30)


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