By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
Prior to Ray Tanner coming to South Carolina in 1997, Clemson had beat the Gamecocks seven straight times. For the most part, the Tigers owned its biggest rival on the baseball diamond.
But by the end of Tanner’s first season in Columbia, it was obvious the rivalry between the state’s two biggest athletic departments was about to get very interesting. In that first year, Tanner ended Clemson’s seven-game win streak on his first try with an 11-3 victory at was then called Tiger Field.
After a couple of Clemson wins, the Gamecocks again bested the Tigers, this time 38-16 – still the largest margin of victory by any team in the series’ 300 games.
To say since then, “the rivalry has been fun” is an understatement. The Palmetto State, and the nation for that matter, has watched as these two bitter rivals played for bragging rights and national supremacy in Clemson, Columbia and Omaha. They have played against each other in the College World Series and in an NCAA Regional.
They have taken their show to Greenville and Charleston, and very few times have they disappointed.
“This game means a lot to our team, our program and the fans,” Clemson head coach Jack Leggett said. “It means a lot to everybody… It’s a big rivalry. We both want to kick each other’s rear end. That’s what this rivalry is all about.”
A new phase of the rivalry will begin tonight when the seventh-ranked Gamecocks visit Doug Kingsmore Stadium at 6:30 in Game 1 of a three-game series this weekend. After taking his team to a third straight College World Series Championship appearance last summer, Tanner hung up his cleats and put on a suit as he became USC’s new athletic director. Tanner name Chad Holbrook, his top assistant coach the previous four seasons, as his successor.
Tanner will spend tonight’s game in the press box instead of in the Carolina dugout, something Leggett admits will be a little strange to see when the game starts.
“You know, I guess it might be a little different,” he said. “But, he is on to new challenges and on to new things. The game changes like that. I have been around long enough so I have seen a lot of new faces come and go, but it will be a good challenge for us. It will still be the same two teams playing and that’s really what this is all about.”
And Leggett is right. It’s about the Clemson-Carolina game or Carolina-Clemson, however you might say it. Though the rivalry on the football field might get more publicity, the baseball series has been more of a true rivalry.
Three times in the last 11 years, South Carolina has ended Clemson’s season, including last year when the Gamecocks beat the Tigers in the Columbia Regional.
“Most of the fans will base the football season as a good or bad one if we beat Carolina or not,” Clemson pitcher Daniel Gossett said. “To know that they were the ones that put us out of the tournament, it puts extra weight on your shoulders.
“They put us out. How are we going to take this? How will this affect our game?”
The Tigers lead the all-time series 169-129-2, but since Tanner came to Columbia in 1997, the Gamecocks have bested Clemson 34 times, while the Tigers have won 26. In 2002 and 2010, the two met in the College World Series with a berth in the National Championship Finals at stake.
Last year, four of the five games were decided by one run, including two in extra innings. Of the four one-run games, two of them came in the Columbia Regional last summer, including a 12-inning classic that ended on an LB Dantzler base hit to right field for a 5-4 Carolina win.
“It motivates us pretty good,” Clemson centerfielder Thomas Brittle said. “It was rough going down there and them ending our season like they did last year. That is a little bit in the back of our minds. But last year is last year and we have a completely different team this year so we are looking to make a new note this year.”
Some of it is already new. Just look in the USC dugout. Though Tanner has moved on and Holbrook is the new skipper, Leggett isn’t expecting anything to change, though, when it comes to what the Gamecocks want to do.
“I have known him for a long period of time,” the Clemson coach said. “He has always been a tireless recruiter and he has a good baseball mind. He works hard at it. I’m sure he will continue doing what they have been doing down there, and they will be a good challenge for us every time we play them.”