By Eric Olson/The Associated Press
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. Game one is at 7 p.m. on ESPN. It is a best of three series.
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 RBIs in the College World Series, said last year’s 0-2 finish in Omaha left him and his teammates hungry for more.
“We had a different mindset coming in this year,” Tucker said. “Last year was the first time for all the guys getting here, and I guess it was a little overwhelming. I know it was for me. But I think everyone’s playing a little more comfortable, more relaxed this year, knowing that we have been there before.”
Starting pitching was South Carolina’s biggest question coming into the season.
Roth, who came out of the bullpen most of last season, has turned into one of the nation’s best starters. Colby Holmes has overcome a hand injury the second half of last season to become a dependable starter. Koumas showed he could do the job when he allowed one run in six innings in his first career start, at Florida.
“We really haven’t been an imposing team,” Tanner said. “And not to discount my guys or anything like that, we’re not a team that can throw a crooked number on you. We have to pitch and play defense and stay in the game and win one late.”
Florida and South Carolina won three straight to reach the finals. The Gators followed an 8-4 victory over Texas with wins of 3-1 and 6-4 over Vanderbilt.
South Carolina, which has won a record 14 straight NCAA tournament games, has wins of 5-4 over Texas A&M and 7-1 and 3-2 over Virginia, the latter in 13 innings.
Last year, the Gamecocks won six straight after losing their College World Series opener. They won the title game against UCLA on their last at-bat, and this year two of their three wins have come in walkoff fashion.
“I don’t know if we amaze ourselves,” second baseman Scott Wingo said, “because we just go out there and we fight every inning.
“I’d say getting (to) back-to-back national championships is pretty amazing.”