Rivalry, rankings on the line this weekend

Looking at this weekend's match-up between No. 4 South Carolina (7-1) and No. 2 Clemson (8-1) on paper, an outsider would see a battle between two of the nation's better baseball squads. With a 14-14 split since the 2000 season, the Gamecocks and Tigers appear an evenly balanced showdown. But what an outsider doesn't see is the bitter in-state rivalry between these two Palmetto State programs.

"There's so much emotion involved, and the level of play is elevated by so many people. It's great to be a part of this, and it's been dead even," USC coach Ray Tanner said on Thursday afternoon. "You can play LSU, you can play Georgia, but this series is unlike any other."

Aside from the natural rivalry, both teams field squads with high levels of talent and expectation. Both schools were preseason picks to challenge for their respective conference crowns, and both are expected to make a run for the College World Series at season's end.

"I think good or bad, whatever happens this weekend for both teams is great for the next few weeks," Tanner said. "The team that does well and wins, or if one team wins two, or if you split, or if you lose two, I think the team that does extremely well has that momentum to cast forward."

The weekend series, which starts in Clemson on Saturday and returns to Columbia Sunday, is something players understand as a major game on their schedule.

"It's a great rivalry, so you have to talk about that," USC pitcher Harris Honeycutt said. "But they're a good team, so it should be a good test to see how far we are."

But for some, like desginated hitter Phil Disher, it's another crack at a win.

"You read too much into it. It's another weekend, and you've got to go out and try to win some ball games," Disher said. "But there is a little extra on the table."

Tanner understands the uniqueness of his situation in the state of South Carolina and knows what's at stake for the USC program.

"I think that both programs are very proud of the fact that the series is at the level that you get some national attention," Tanner said. "There's a lot of good baseball being played in the state of South Carolina other than our two teams. But we both have pretty good programs, and for college baseball it's a hard ticket. So we're proud of the rivalry."

Sunday's game in Columbia will also serve as a tribute to former USC groundskeeper and namesake of the baseball field, Sarge Frye. Twenty-five members of Frye's family will be in attendance to honor the longtime University employee.

"Sarge Frye is a legend here," Tanner said. "It's very special in the fact that so many family members are going to be here with us. It's exciting, it's a tribute that is certainly well deserved. I think it just adds a lot to the game on Sunday."

That kind of tribute and intense rivalry makes even Tanner wish for his younger days.

"As an old broken down coach, there's very few times when you say, 'Man I wish I could play,'" Tanner said. "Well, this is a time when I wish I could get out there and go get it like the rest of these guys. I think it's great that we both have pretty good programs."

Game one on Saturday will start at 2 p.m. at Clemson's Doug Kingsmore Stadium. The Gamecocks will then return to Columbia for a 1:30 p.m. showdown with the Tigers at Sarge Frye Field on Sunday afternoon.

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