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Florida Gators must hurdle SEC rival, defending champs to win program's first College World Series title

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 of the Florida athletic director. "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."

In an all-SEC final, the Gators (53-17) and the defending national champion Gamecocks (53-14) will square off at 8 tonight 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, the Gamecocks won it last season, and the Gators hope they bring it home this year. When UF reached the finals in 2005, the Gators were swept by Texas.

"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."

Preston Tucker, a Plant High graduate who has a homer and team-leading six RBIs in this CWS, said last year's 0-2 finish in Omaha left him and his teammates hungry.

"We had a different mind-set 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."

The Gators and Gamecocks both endured roller-coaster seasons with the bull's-eye squarely on their backs. The Eastern Division rivals benefited from 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 said there are 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 celebrated in Columbia last season after winning the SEC regular-season title, only to see the Gamecocks close Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha 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 won the series in Gainesville, sandwiching a pair of victories around sophomore Hudson Randall's complete game. Randall (11-3, 2.24 ERA) will start tonight for the Gators.

"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 UF and tossed six sharp innings, allowing one unearned run on two hits.

The Gators will start freshman Karsten Whitson (8-0) in 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."

Both teams are confident, hitting their strides at the right time.

O'Sullivan said the turning point for Florida was hurdling the mental hump of a devastating Game 2 Super Region loss to Mississippi State, coming back to win Game 3 to reach the CWS.

"It's swag vs. swag," O'Sullivan said of South Carolina. "Both teams are playing very well."

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

"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," Tanner said. "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."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

>>tonight

College World Series finals

Florida (53-17) vs. South Carolina (53-14)

Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.

Schedule: Best of three; 8 tonight and Tuesday; 8 p.m. Wednesday, if necessary

TV/radio: ESPN; 1010-AM

Florida Gators must hurdle SEC rival, defending champs to win program's first College World Series title 06/26/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 26, 2011 9:50pm]
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