Palmetto rivalry series takes center-stage

Jack Leggett greets South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook

Photo by Mark Crammer

Jack Leggett greets South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook

South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook played and coached as an assistant at North Carolina.

And while Holbrook, who is close friends with UNC basketball coach Roy Williams, never set foot on the court, he had a great perspective on the Tar Heels’ rivalry with the Duke Blue Devils, which is considered to be one of the best rivalries in all of college sports.

So when he puts Clemson-South Carolina baseball on that same level, it means something to Holbrook, who faces the Tigers in a series this weekend for the second time as the Gamecocks’ head coach.

“Within our state’s borders, I don’t think it’s any different from North Carolina-Duke basketball. It’s heated. It’s emotional,” Holbrook said. “It’s as big as it gets.

“There’s something really, really special about this rivalry, and I’m really glad that I’m a part of it.”

College football also has it’s share of big rivalries, like Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn — and even USC-Clemson.

Holbrook said the fans, atmosphere and intensity between players has helped create a scene like you’d see on a fall Saturday, which adds to the uniqueness of the baseball series.

“It’s kind of the equivalent of Alabama and Auburn in football,” said Clemson sophomore Matthew Crownover, who will start Saturday’s game on the mound after missing last year’s series while working back from Tommy John surgery. “It’s a big rivalry, but in the grand scheme of things you have to treat it like another game. If you put too much into it, it’s not going to be a good day for you.”

The series will again take place in three different venues: Friday’s Game 1 is set for 7 p.m. at Carolina Stadium in Columbia. The teams will head up I-26 and I-385 for Saturday’s 2 p.m. showdown at Fluor Field in Greenville. The series finale will be at 4 p.m. at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson.

“I think this is one of the better weekend rivalry series in the country,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “The three venues that we play at are sold out and there are people all over the place. There is a lot of interest from the fans in the state because it is a great intrastate rivalry. That makes it a big deal and we are excited about the opportunities that we have in front of us.”

It’s a rivalry South Carolina has dominated as of late, winning 20 of the last 28 meetings, dating back to 2007.

Since moving to a three-game set at the different venues in 2010, USC is 11-5 and has won the regular-season series the last three years. Clemson last had the better weekend in 2010, but that was the year the Gamecocks beat the Tigers twice in Omaha to end their season at the College World Series, which South Carolina won.

“When you beat a program like Clemson, you’ve accomplished something,” said Holbrook, who’s been on staff at USC since 2009. “They’re obviously good. Some of these games that we’ve played have been in the College World Series, some have just been knock-down-drag-outs here. It could go either way any time we step on the field and I think it’ll be that way this weekend.”

One of the reasons the rivalry can be compared to Duke-UNC or Alabama-Auburn is the fact that the teams compete as such a high level — and this year is no different.

The 7-0 Gamecocks enter the series ranked third nationally and have pitched a school-record five consecutive shutouts. They haven’t allowed a run in 51 innings. The offense has more than done its part, racking up 57 runs. First baseman Kyle Martin leads the SEC with a .500 batting average while catcher Grayson Greiner has driven in a team-high 10 runs this year.

The 6-1 Tigers are very similar statistically. They’ve scored 51 runs while posting a team earned run average of 2.81. Clemson has won six straight contests after dropping the season opener to Eastern Michigan. Right fielder Steven Duggar is riding a 16-game hitting streak while shortstop Tyler Krieger is hitting .500 to lead the Tigers.

“We have been ready for this day to come so we could focus solely on South Carolina,” said Clemson catcher and former T.L. Hanna standout Garrett Boulware, who has nine RBIs this season. “Everyone looks forward to this series because there is a lot of hype around it and bragging rights that come with it. It is definitely a series that we have been looking forward to.”

While Holbrook said he expects to see some runs scored in this series, Friday’s pitching matchup could be one for the ages. USC junior southpaw Jordan Montgomery (2-0, 0.00 ERA) takes on junior right-hander Daniel Gossett (1-0, 1.50). Lefty Jack Wynkoop (2-0, 1.46) takes the mound for the Gamecocks against lefty Crownover (2-0, 2.70) in Greenville. Sunday’s always one of the most interesting games as either a sweep or the series is up for grabs. That’s when stellar USC freshman Wil Crowe (2-0, 0.00), who’s only allowed four hits in two starts, battles junior right-hander Jake Long (1-0, 6.23).

Holbrook said he sees two evenly matched teams. Claiming bragging rights and earning a pivotal early-season series that will have ramifications down the road will come down to execution. Neither team will “out-talent” each other.

“Historically, when these two teams get together, it’s two great baseball programs going at each other,” Holbrook said. “That’s what makes it fun for our fans and I guess everybody involved in college baseball. It’s obviously one of the best rivalries in our sport.”

Series glance

No. 11 Clemson vs. No. 3 South Carolina

Friday: 7 p.m. at Carolina Stadium in Columbia (Fox Sports South)

Saturday: 2 p.m. at Fluor Field in Greenville (WMYA-40)

Sunday: 4 p.m. at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson (no TV)

Overall record: Clemson leads 170-131-2

Last 5 years: USC leads 13-7

Follow Brad Senkiw on Twitter at @bsenkiwaim and at @orangeandwhite.

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