South Carolina fired up for biggest rivalry in college baseball

South Carolina fired up for biggest rivalry in college baseball

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth**

Clarke Schmidt knows what he's up against when he takes the mound Friday night at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson. 

He's knows the stadium will be packed, it will be loud and the atmosphere will be electric. And he knows the orange-clad Clemson fans will be taunting him before he even throws his first pitch against the No. 12 Tigers.

"I'll be warming up and they'll be fans surrounding me trying to get into my head," says Schmidt, who will start Game 1 of the South Carolina-Clemson series Friday night. 

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Though Schmidt is from Georgia, few people have a better understanding of the magnitude of the Clemson-South Carolina baseball rivalry. His brother, Clate, pitched for Clemson last season. Clarke beat Clemson 8-1 in Game 1 in Columbia, and his brother returned the favor on Saturday, beating South Carolina 5-0. 

Playing in such an intense rivalry is the biggest reason Schmidt came to South Carolina. 

"One-hundred percent," he said. "There is not much more you can look forward to as a high-school (player) than playing in a rivalry this big." 

Many consider the annual Clemson-South Carolina series the best rivalry in college baseball. While nothing in the state compares to the football rivalry between the two schools, the baseball series comes close. 

"These guys who grew up in South Carolina, just being around them, you see how crazy intense it is for those guys," South Carolina OF/DH Alex Destino says. "I've been part of it for two years and it's an absolute pleasure to be able to play in it. It's one of the finest rivalries you will ever get to play in." 

The Gamecocks will play at Clemson Friday night at 6:30 p.m. and then at 1 p.m. Saturday at Fluor Field in Greenville. The series will conclude at 1:30 Sunday at Founders Park in Columbia. 

All three stadiums will be packed and the atmosphere will be super-charged, with fans and players hanging onto every pitch.

"Every pitch you are like biting your nails and you are freaking out in the dugout," Schmidt said. "It's like a postseason game."

The series features two of the top programs in the country. Clemson and South Carolina have combined for 23 College World Series appearances and have squared off several times in the NCAA tournament. Clemson leads the all-time series 174-136-2, but South Carolina, which won back-to-back national championships in 2010-2011, has won 25 of the past 37 games dating back to 2007. Both schools were highly ranked coming into the season and have gotten off to good starts, with No. 4 South Carolina starting 6-3 and No. 12 Clemson 6-2. 

"It's a rivalry that is built on great tradition and great success by both programs," South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook said as his team prepared to leave for Clemson Thursday. "You have incredible atmosphere and energy. It's two great programs, two great histories and two great fan bases."

Holbrook, whose team has lost two of three to Clemson each of the past two seasons, doesn't have to remind his players what it means to beat Clemson. Both schools use the heated rivalry as a recruiting tool. 

"I don't have to say anything," Holbrook said. " … One of the reasons why our kids come to South Carolina and Clemson kids go to Clemson is to be a part of this rivalry. It's a very unique environment when it comes to college baseball, so there is nothing I have to say to get them fired up to play this series." 

"Obviously, it's huge," Schmidt says. "Everybody knows how big it is for us. We are pumped up and we're ready to get out there. We are ready to play, and I'm sure they are ready to play, too. There is a lot of ownership and we want to have some bragging rights, especially after last year."

Though South Carolina has enjoyed the most postseason success in recent years, Clemson has won the three-game series the last two years. That's adds even more incentive and a bigger sense of urgency for South Carolina. 

"It puts a little chip on our shoulder," Schmidt said. "I have never won a series here against them, so that's playing big in my mind." 

"It's digging at me," junior closer Tyler Johnson said. "It's big for me and it's big for Schmidt and a bunch of the older guys here who haven't had that, so we want to get this rivalry back on track." 

Destino, a North Carolina native, said he is trying to treat the series like any other game, but adds, "It's very hard to do that. It's very intense. There is a lot of passion and energy in this series."

The rivalry is also good for the state, a hotbed for college baseball. While Clemson and South Carolina are regular participants in the NCAA tournament, with the Gamecocks winning two national titles, Coastal Carolina is the defending national champions. Both Clemson and South Carolina and anxious to return to the postseason and get back to Omaha. 

A series victory this weekend could jumpstart that journey. 

"We are very, very fortunate to be a part of it," Holbrook said. "Our state is very fortunate to get to observe it. To have the crowds and the fans involved, it's a special event and it's great for college baseball."