So the SEC regular season ended in a wimper. And so the Gamecocks once again stumbled early in the SEC Tournament. Conference titles are a nice addition to any trophy case, but the thing about a conference title is it's not unique. Every conference crowns a champion each year. Most conferences crown two -- one for the regular season and one for the tournament. There's only one National Champion, though. It would have been nice to add a little extra hardware to the halls of Carolina Stadium. Sure. But there's just one trophy that South Carolina fans have their eyes on now. Friday marks the beginning of a new season for the Gamecocks. Scratch that. Friday marks the beginning of THE season for the Gamecocks. From here on out every loss has a direct impact on South Carolina's chances at winning a National Championship and every win gets us a measurable amount closer to our goal. We've been fortunate enough the last two years to bear witness to two historic runs by Ray Tanner's squad, and with any luck we'll see something equally magical this year.
The hurdle starts Friday at 4:00pm, when the 'Cocks will play the Manhattan Jaspers (that's Manhattan, New York, not Kansas in case you were wondering) in the friendly confines of Carolina Stadium. The Jaspers are the #4 seed in the Columbia regional and are accompanied by #3 seed Coastal Carolina and #2 seed Clemson. For their part, the Gamecocks garnered the #8 overall national seed. With that honor comes the right to host both the regionals and super regionals in Columbia. We'll take a brief look at each of the Columbia Regional's teams after the jump.
#4 Seed - Manhattan Jaspers (33-25, 18-6 MAAC): The Jaspers are coming into the NCAA tournament having just won their second consecutive MAAC conference title. In a truly Gamecockian spirit, the Jaspers came out of the loser's bracket and won four games in three days to claim their crown. The team owns a combined battering average of .273 and an ERA of 4.44. Senior RHP Taylor Sewitt leads the team with 11 wins and .211 batting average against. The Jaspers are led at the plate by junior outfielder Anthony Vega. Vega has started all 58 games and owns a .336 average, .491 sluggin percentage, and a .417 on base percentage. This will be their fourth ever NCAA tournament appearance. Manhattan owns a healthy RPI ranking of 139. This will be the first ever meeting of the Gamecocks and Jaspers, an historic moment, indeed.
#3 Seed - Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (41-17, 18-5 Big South): The Chanticleers are a formidable #3 seed --perhaps as good as any #3 seed in the tournament this year. Senior outfielder Daniel Bowman has had a big season at the plate. In starting all 58 games for the Chanticleers, he has compiled a .401 AVG, .577 SLG%, .483 OB%. On the mound the Chants are led by junior RHP Aaron Burke. Burk, who transferred from Allen Community College in Kansas is carrying a 1.18 ERA, 10-5 W-L record, .238 batting average against. Coastal Carolina has seen its stock rise in the college baseball world as of late. This series presents a great opportunity for them to prove themselves and avenge defeat at the hands of the Gamecocks in 2010 Super Regionals.Coastal is currently ranked #39 in the RPI. South Carolina is 12-5 all-time versus the Chanticleers. The two teams have not met since the Super Regionals in 2010.
#2 Seed - Clemson Tigers (33-26, 16-14 ACC): In a departure from convention, the NCAA selection committee decided to place rivals in the same regional this year. Clemson has seen its season fizzle these past few weeks. After being swept by Wake Forrest (a team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament) the Tigers dropped two of three games in the ACC Tournament. Unlike the Gamecocks, though, the Tigers don't seem to have a knack for turning "it" on when NCAA play rolls around. The most bizarre part of the Tigers' situation this year, however, may not be that Clemson is paired with Carolina in the Columbia regional, but that Clemson is a #2 seed. Clemson is ranked #31 in the RPI, just behind #3 seed Coastal Carolina. Their biggest achievement of the season is probably a 3-4 series victory over #3 national seed Florida State. The Tigers boast a team batting average .269 and a team ERA of 3.94. No Tigers pitchers can claim more than 6 wins on the season. Richie Shaffer leads the team at the plate with a .339 AVG., .583 SLG%, and .479 SLG%. He's knocked 10 home runs so far this year -- no small feat in the era of dead bats. For comparison, the Gamecocks' Christian Walker also has 10.
The Tigers may not look very formidable for a #2 seed on paper, but anything can happen in a play-off atmosphere when rivals get involved. I'd venture to guess that the Columbia regional might be one of the toughest in the country, if not on paper then by circumstance. I expect all of this weekend's game to be competitive, to the point where I think we might see a few extra-inning contests. Hold onto your hats, folks. This weekend should be a fun one.