South Carolina already holds a special spot in college baseball history. After back-to-back College World Series titles, the Gamecocks will take a swing at becoming one of the sport’s rare dynasties.
Just the sixth school to win two straight championships, South Carolina begins its quest Friday for a third in a row as the aluminum pings of spring start up at college ballparks all around the country. Only Rod Dedeaux’s 1970-74 Southern California squads have won three or more consecutive national titles in Division I baseball.
“We have expectations in this program,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. “Our players have it, fans have it and we are just going to do the best we can. I have never been one to talk about the future and setting goals and objectives, all of those things. We are just trying to have a good practice and get better each time out there.”
While the Gamecocks’ lineup has a few new faces, Tanner’s pitching rotation includes two of the country’s best hurlers in left-hander Michael Roth and righty Matt Price, who’s moving from the closer’s role after saving 30 games his first two seasons.
“We want to go out there and win, and I don’t get involved in all the hoopla about hype or whatever,” said Roth, who went 14-3 with a 1.06 ERA that ranked second-best in the country. “I just come out here and try to give the team a chance to win.”
South Carolina will have plenty of competition on the road to Omaha, Neb., the site of the College World Series played in June. Florida, Stanford, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Texas all appear to have championship-caliber teams.
After falling two victories shy — against the Gamecocks — of their first College World Series title, the Gators are ranked No. 1 in every major preseason poll. And for good reason.
Kevin O’Sullivan’s squad has six everyday position players back, including slugging catcher Mike Zunino and hard-hitting outfielder Preston Tucker. But the Gators are downright scary on the mound with three aces leading the way with right-handers Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson, and lefty Brian Johnson, who’s also Florida’s designated hitter.
“I think that going into this thing,” said Texas’ Augie Garrido, “if we could count on experience in the College World Series, which they now have; talent, which they have; and if we could count on that experience translating into the same kind of year or an even better year than they had last year, then undoubtedly, they are the best team in the nation.”
But Garrido, who has won five national championships — three with Cal State Fullerton and two with Texas — knows better than to crown a champion in February because of the uncertainty of how young players will respond to past success and increasing expectations.
“There’s all sorts of distractions to overcome,” Garrido said.
Stanford will find that out quickly as major league scouts flock to its games again. The Cardinal are loaded with several potential high draft picks, including righty Mark Appel — the possible No. 1 selection in June — and third baseman/closer Stephen Piscotty.
“It’s a lot of talk,” Piscotty said. “When you have guys who are studs around you, I think that takes the pressure off each player. It almost diminishes the pressure, knowing that you don’t have to carry the team that day.”
Texas doesn’t have a powerful lineup — the Longhorns hit only 17 homers last season — but has the solid contact hitters Garrido loves, such as Erich Weiss, Mark Payton and Jonathan Walsh. Lefties Sam Stafford and Hoby Milner give Texas two solid starters, and Corey Knebel is one of the country’s top closers.
Arkansas joins Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana State and Vanderbilt as teams with a legitimate shot at giving the Southeastern Conference four straight College World Series titles; LSU won in 2009. Switch-hitting first baseman Dominic Ficociello headlines the Razorbacks’ lineup, with former closer D.J. Baxendale coming off a terrific season as the mound ace.
Texas A&M has two big-time pitchers in righties Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling, and a lineup that returns its four top hitters, including outfielders Tyler Naquin and Krey Bratsen, first baseman Jacob House and third baseman Matt Juengel.
“We’ve got an awful lot of guys back, but we also have a lot of guys who were part of the 2009 team where the external expectations were probably as high as they’ve ever been,” coach Rob Childress said of his Aggies, who were ranked No. 1 in preseason polls three years ago but failed to make it out of the first round of the NCAA tournament. “There’s enough guys from that team to keep these focused on what they can control, and that’s getting better each day.”
Arizona, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Rice are among several other teams that could make a run to Omaha.
The focus is back on the field after the new toned-down aluminum bats were the hot-button topic at this time a year ago. The bats, mandated for safety reasons by the NCAA, were put into play to perform even more like wood with shrunken sweet spots that would decrease the exit speeds of the ball. And, they earned mixed reviews.
“I was a little skeptical. I still am,” Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “I think all of us have changed our offensive philosophies and how to approach it.”
Power numbers with the new Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) standard plummeted in Division I last season, but adjustments by players and manufacturers have teams more comfortable now.
“There is no doubt,” San Jose State coach Sam Piraro said, “that the bat situation is this simple: Your good hitters are going to hit.”
While the pings might have had less zing, the sport’s popularity didn’t appear to suffer with fans flocking to stadiums all across the country — including at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, where attendance was up in its first year as the CWS site after 61 years at Rosenblatt Stadium — and an increase in television exposure.
And all that has players and coaches excited about what’s in store for college baseball this season.
“This is the best time of year,” said coach Gary McClure of Austin Peay, the preseason favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference. “This is what you do all the things that you do off the field for. This is the fun part.”
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., and Janie McCauley in Stanford, Calif., contributed to this report.MORE IN Sports Wire
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