Gators, Gamecocks ready to battle in CWS finals

By Jesse Simonton

OMAHA, Neb. — Ray Tanner can tell a story. But if he turns out to be a distant relative of Nostradamus, Florida fans will dance in the streets.

“Last year, when we got home, I got a nice note from Mr. [Jeremy] Foley, very, very nice note congratulating us,” South Carolina’s coach said.  “I wrote back and said, ‘Your team is outstanding, your coach is the best and you will win a national championship in baseball sooner rather than later.’”

Then he paused and joked, “Be careful what you say.”

We’ll see.

In a Southeastern Conference grudge-match, the Gators (53-17) and the defending national champion Gamecocks (53-14) will square off tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPN in the best-of-three championship series at the College World Series.

For the third straight season, baseball’s championship trophy will find itself back in football country.

LSU captured the crown in 2009, while the Gamecocks won it last season, but with a new engraving on the 2011 trophy, the Gators hope they’re the one’s to bring it home.

“There’s going to be a team at Florida that wins it for the first time. Hopefully this is the one,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It would be awfully special to be the first team at Florida to win the national championship in baseball.”

The Gators and Gamecocks both endured rollercoaster seasons with the bulls-eye squarely on their backs, but despite it all, the Eastern division rivals reached the title round, thanks in large part to a grueling conference slate.

“It’s kind of ironic that two SEC teams get a chance to go head-to-head here in Omaha,” O’Sullivan said. “But all year we felt like the SEC is certainly the best conference in the country. I think playing the SEC schedule has certainly prepared us for this opportunity.”

Tanner agreed saying, there’s no easy weekends because “everybody is good.”

“I think one of the coaches coined it a long time ago… I’ll never forget he said, ‘Our league is tremendously exciting but very dangerous.’ And that’s what it is.”

The recent history between Florida and South Carolina has been riddled with excitement, as the Gators dogpiled in Columbia last season after winning the SEC regular season, only to see the Gamecocks close out Rosenblatt Stadium with an even rowdier celebration.

“We were able to go up there and take two out of three from them, but they got the last laugh,” UF catcher Mike Zunino said. “They got to hold up the championship trophy.”

In late March, the Gamecocks stole the series in Gainesville, sandwiching a pair of victories between Hudson Randall’s (11-3, 2.24) — tonight’s Game 1 starter for Florida — trilling complete game.

“I see him in my sleep a lot,” Tanner said. “He’s special. He’s fun to watch.”

The Gamecocks will start freshman Forrest Koumas (6-1, 3.07), who made his first career start against the Gators and tossed six sharp innings, allowing just one unearned run on two hits.

Entering tonight, both teams are confident, hitting their strides at the right time of the year.

O’Sullivan said the turning point for Florida was hurdling the mental hump of a devastating Super Regional loss to Mississippi State.

THe Gamecocks, who won the title with a walk-off hit a season ago, have continued their flair for the dramatics, winning two more contests at the CWS in the last at-bat variety.

“It’s swag versus swag,” O’Sullivan said. “Both teams are playing very well.”

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