More than SEC supremacy at stake for Gamecocks, Gators

OMAHA, Neb. — Florida and South Carolina don’t immediately come to mind when you’re talking about Southeastern Conference rivalries - unless it’s baseball.

The Gators (53-17) and defending national champion Gamecocks (53-14) play their biggest series to date when they meet in the College World Series finals beginning Monday.

Last year, the Gators traveled to Columbia, S.C., the final weekend of the regular season and won two of three to edge out the Gamecocks for the SEC title.

“But they got the last laugh,” said Florida catcher and SEC player of the year Mike Zunino. “They got to hold the national championship trophy up.”

Three months ago, South Carolina went to Florida and won two of three, and the teams ended up in a three-way tie with Vanderbilt for the best record in the league.

Yes, anticipation for this championship series has been brewing for a while.

“You know, if all you guys went away and there were no fans and we were on the back sandlot, I’m not sure it would be any different,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said Sunday. “I think they love to play. We love to play. Yeah, there’s a lot more at stake now than there ever was before. But it’s really genuine baseball. Let’s go.”

Florida will start sophomore Hudson Randall (11-3) against freshman Forrest Koumas (6-1) in Game 1. The Gators will send out freshman Karsten Whitson (8-0) for Game 2.

Tanner said he doesn’t know who will pitch the second game. It’s possible Michael Roth, who threw 90 pitches in seven innings against Virginia on Friday, will be back on three days’ rest.

“My guess is that he’ll want to pitch,” Tanner said. “If it’s a situation where we feel like Michael gives us the best opportunity, we’ll run him back out there.”

Before coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s arrival four years ago, the Gators had failed to make the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 20 years.

O’Sullivan said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley wanted a program that would be competitive year in and year out. O’Sullivan said a team has to get lots of breaks to be in position to play for a national title.

“It was all about consistency and being one of the elite programs in the country,” he said. “I’ve never put a timetable on it. This league is too difficult. I think if you get too far ahead of yourself and look too far ahead, then you’ll find yourself in some trouble.”

Zunino, Randall, shortstop Nolan Fontana and third baseman Cody Dent were among the freshmen on the 2010 team that reached the College World Series for the first time since 2005.

Preston Tucker, who has a home run and team-leading six RBI in the College World Series, said last year’s 0-2 finish in Omaha left him and his teammates hungry for more.

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