SEC squads battle for CWS title
South Carolina defends crown against Florida
OMAHA, Neb. — No one argues that the Southeastern Conference is the class of college baseball this year.
Now it's time to find out who truly is best in the league, and nation, when defending champion South Carolina and Florida meet in the College World Series finals starting Monday.
The Gamecocks (53-14) and Gators (53-17) shared the SEC Eastern Division title with a Vanderbilt team that also made it to the CWS' final four.
Florida won the conference tournament, beating Vanderbilt, and South Carolina owns a record 14 consecutive NCAA tournament victories.
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South Carolina won two of three games against Florida in the regular season, but that was all the way back in March.
Their finals matchup marks the first time since 1998 that two teams from the same conference will square off for the championship.
"We know it's not easy. We know there's a long way to go in this thing," Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "But you have to get there. So we're excited for playing for the national championship but we're going to be business as usual for the next couple days."
O'Sullivan hasn't announced a starting pitcher for Game 1. Sophomore Hudson Randall (11-3) and freshman Karsten Whitson (8-0) are available. Randall earned the win in the Gators' CWS opener against Texas on June 18, and Whitson (8-0) started against Vanderbilt on June 20.
Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said he was leaning toward starting freshman Forrest Koumas (6-1), who last pitched June 5 in regionals.
South Carolina's biggest pitching concern is the availability of closer Matt Price, who threw 90 pitches and got out of three bases-loaded situations in a season-long 5 2-3 innings in Friday's 3-2, 13-inning victory against Virginia.
"What are the chances of rain on Monday," Tanner said, laughing. "We're certainly going to be able to use two days [off], but a third might not be bad."
The forecast calls for a 40 percent chance of scattered storms on Monday. The first CWS at TD Ameritrade Park already has had its share of weather problems, with a strong thunderstorm causing the suspension of a game last Monday and showers causing a 68-minute rain delay the next day.
"We have to try to get Matt turned around as best we can in the next few days and go from there," Tanner said. "At this point you just try to figure it out as you go and do the best you can with it."
South Carolina's path to the finals has been much smoother this year. A year ago the Gamecocks lost their first game here before becoming the first team in CWS history to roll off six consecutive wins. They swept UCLA in the finals.
The Gamecocks won three in a row to advance to this year's finals, though it took until their final at-bat to win two of the games.
"I coached for a long time and was unable to get to Omaha as a head coach," Tanner said. "And then we were here a few times. It's something you never take for granted. We played in the finals last year and we got back there again. I'm grateful."
The Gamecocks have allowed two earned runs in 31 innings (0.58 ERA). Michael Roth has surrendered just one earned run in 14 1-3 innings and Price, the closer, has given up none in 6 2-3 innings.
South Carolina is batting .274 in its three games, best in a CWS field that has struggled to generate offense in the spacious new stadium where the wind regularly blows in.
The Gators were swept by Texas in 2005 in their only other appearance in the CWS finals. Last year they went 0-2 in Omaha. With 100 wins in 2010-11, the Gators are in the best two-year stretch in program history.
They're trying to become the first SEC school to win national titles in football (1996, 2006, 2008), men's basketball (2006 and '07) and baseball.
The Gators are batting .265 here compared with .311 the rest of the season. They came in with a nation-leading 67 home runs, but only Preston Tucker has gone deep for them.
Randall and Alex Panteliodis allowed one earned run apiece in their CWS starts, and the Gators' team ERA is 2.00 in their three games. They walked only two batters in their first 24 CWS innings.