Familiar Foes Await USC in Regional

The Gamecocks learned Monday they will be traveling to Raleigh as a second seed, where two familiar opponents await. Top seed and host team NC State was in the Columbia regional last year, though the teams did not play. Third-seeded Charlotte played the Gamecocks earlier this year, and played the Gamecocks twice in last year's Columbia regional. James Madison rounds out the quartet in Raleigh.

Speaking for the first time since the field of 64 was announced, Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner expressed relief to hear the Gamecocks' name called on Monday. The Gamecocks struggled late in the season, being swept in two of their final four series, winning the others 2-1. That inconsistency carried over to the SEC Tournament, where Carolina mustered just one win.

"I'm delighted to get in," Tanner said. "I was delighted to see our name come up."

First up for Carolina is the Atlantic-10 Champion Charlotte 49ers on Friday, May 30 at 2 PM. Charlotte came to Columbia March 5, and routed the Gamecocks 11-2. In that game, Carolina took an early 2-0 before surrendering 11 unanswered runs. The Gamecocks stranded 14 base runners, including a pair of innings in which they loaded the bases but failed to score. However, because that game took place during the second week of the season, Tanner does not think it will have any effect on the upcoming game.

"I don't think it matters either way; I don't think it would be a big deal if we had won 11-2," said Tanner. "They may look at it differently, but it was a long time ago. They've had a great year, and we've played well at times and not so well at times, so I don't think that what happened earlier in the season is going to make much difference."

Tanner has not picked a starter for Friday. He said the decision will likely come down to Sam Dyson or Nick Godwin, with Mike Cisco being most likely to come out of the bullpen. Godwin started against Charlotte in the first meeting, giving up five runs in five innings. He pitched well early before giving up a big home run and breaking down in the fourth and fifth innings, but Tanner feels confident he could send Godwin to the mound.

"That [game] was so long ago, a lot has happened between then and now," he said. "We'll make a decision who we go with in the next couple of days."

This regional will mark Tanner's return to his alma mater. Tanner was a four-year starter at NC State, an assistant coach for seven years, and was the head coach of the Wolfpack for nine seasons, tallying 395 wins and reaching the NCAA Tournament twice. In his eleven seasons since coming to the Gamecocks, Tanner has never faced the Wolfpack, although he came close last season. NC State was seeded second behind the Gamecocks in the Columbia regional, but lost its first two games to be sent home before facing Carolina. Tanner was asked several times what it would be like to return to his alma mater, and although he still refers to NC State as "we," (don't worry Gamecock fans, he also says "we" in reference to Carolina, it got confusing at times) he said the weekend has no particular meaning for him.

"A lot of people will tell you that I'm not a touchy-feely kind of guy," said Tanner. "I've got deep roots there. I think the thing that stands out most with me is [during my time there] we not once bid for a regional. We've come a long way, and I say ‘we' as an alum. I'm excited for NC State to be hosting right now. I'm a Gamecock. I've been here for a long time, and hopefully I'll get to stay a long time in the future."

The Gamecocks face a difficult road if they want to reach Omaha. Winning on the road in the Tournament is not easy, but it is possible. Right now, Carolina feels like they have not reached their full potential this year, and starting on Friday they have a chance to redeem themselves.

"We talked a little bit about playing with an attitude," Tanner said. "We haven't been a bad team, [but] we haven't been a great team. We've been pretty good at times, and I think that there's a little bit of an itch: ‘let's put together a streak here.' I think we are certainly capable [of winning the regional], no disrespect to any of the teams there. We feel like if we play like we're capable, we're going to have a shot at it."

Notes:

- The Gamecocks are making their ninth straight appearance in the NCAA Baseball Tournament, the longest streak in the SEC. It is Carolina's 24th appearance overall, and tenth under Tanner.

- Nine SEC teams were selected for the NCAA Tournament, the most from any conference. All eight teams that played in the SEC Tournament were selected, along with Arkansas.

- Volunteer assistant coach Sammy Esposito will also be returning to his alma mater. Esposito played four years of baseball at NC State, where he was coached by his father Sam, and by Tanner, who was an assistant on Sam's staff.

- Three of the four teams in the Raleigh regional have 38 wins this year: NC State (20 losses), Carolina (21) and James Madison (17 losses). Charlotte (43-14) has more wins and fewer losses than the other three.

- For those keeping score at home, Wofford was the fourth team in the Columbia regional last year. The Terriers went 24-35 this season, and did not make the NCAA Tournament.

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