USC set for key early season test at Clemson
South Carolina coach Ray Tanner's disagreement with new rules and regulations created by the NCAA has been well documented. Scholarships, roster amounts and even scheduling have all been bones that at times the 13-year USC veteran skipper has wanted to pick for the better of his team and the sport as a whole.
So when Tanner and the Gamecocks were forced to play just three weekends of non-conference competition before delving into SEC play, the coach was determined to make the most of it. After an opening weekend sweep of Duquesne, South Carolina (3-0) plays the home and home weekend portion of their annual match-up against in-state rival No. 19 Clemson. Those games precede the team playing host to Long Beach State and then jumping into conference action against the two best teams in the SEC Western Division (LSU and Mississippi State).
It's a tough road that Tanner wouldn't have any other way.
"You only get three non-conference weekends before you go into SEC play, and we like to think our conference is as good as any. Two of my three were Clemson and Long Beach," Tanner said. "It's a great opportunity. It's very challenging no question about it. But it's also a great opportunity that if we can do well I think it will help our guys grow up going into SEC play."
The Gamecocks will have a lot of growing up to do as just four of the probable nine starters in the Carolina batting order have been a part of this rivalry before. Added to that, the Gamecocks' two starting pitchers, Sam Dyson and Nolan Belcher, have never taken the hill in a Carolina-Clemson game.
Some coaches might call that being thrown into a pressure cooker, but Tanner is encouraging his guys to enjoy the moment.
"We're just going to tell them to have fun and enjoy one of the greatest rivalries in all of college baseball," Tanner said. "It's well attended. It's a great situation to be in. It's why you put the uniform on. It's what you sign up for when you play college baseball. So just enjoy the moment."
Junior leftfielder DeAngelo Mack was once one of those players with wide-eyes entering the much talked about rivalry series. But the Columbia native doesn't believe nerves will be a big deal for this year's team.
"I didn't really realize the magnitude of it until I was actually in the dugout and watching it play. It sends chills up your back," Mack said. "I don't think it's going to play a factor at all. I think our team is ready to perform and I don't think any inexperience is going to have anything to do with it."
Tanner echoes Mack's sentiment, saying that while experience is a good thing to have, rivalry games are unpredictable.
"They are ranked right now and we're not. And they're a little more experienced. But I can't remember when that really figured in to this series," Tanner said. "It's a rivalry. It's a rivalry game. So you go out and play and a lot of crazy things have happened in this game. Hopefully it doesn't make any difference."
With a youthful roster in his corner, Tanner is sending a new set of arms to the hill for the rivalry. Normal Friday starter Sam Dyson will pitch in his first Carolina-Clemson rivalry game at Doug Kingsmore Stadium on Saturday, while freshman Nolan Belcher will make just his second start on Sunday back in Columbia. Though the third arm in the weekend rotation, Blake Cooper, will be available for relief work, Tanner thinks now is as good a time as any to get the new guys introduced to the rivalry series.
"Nolan is a guy that he earned to opportunity to pitch. And so did Cooper. So did Dyson and we decided to go right, left, right and Dyson's going in the first game, and Belcher's gets the second game," Tanner said. "His outing last week wasn't great, but I liked his competitiveness and I feel like he's the right man for the game. He needs the experience and if we're going to have a great year we need Nolan Belcher to be in the middle of it. So there's no better opportunity to get better than a game like this."
Though the game against Clemson is uncharted water for Dyson, the sophomore All-American is ready for whatever the game against the Tigers throws at him.
"I've never been in that situation up there so I wouldn't know what to expect. I mean I've been up there watching people play, but other than that I haven't really had any experience up there so I don't know what's going to come out of it from the fans or anything like that," Dyson said. "It's definitely a chance for an early statement."
USC coach Ray Tanner addressed recent rumblings from Carolina students about the lack of student seating at the new ballpark. According to The Daily Gamecock, Tanner likes the idea of having more student involvement at baseball games and hopes the school will work on getting them more involved.
"I've got a feeling that if the demand is there then there will be arrangements made to accommodate our students better than have been," Tanner said. He later added, "I don't know enough about it to maybe make accurate comments… But I'm impressed with the Garnet Army right now. I'd like for them to be a part of what we're doing as well."
The Gamecocks enter Saturday's game having won the last four match-ups between the two teams by an average of over six runs… In 12 previous seasons, Tanner is 23-20 against the Tigers, including a 21-15 mark over the last nine seasons.
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