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Gamecocks, 1 win away from title round, are relaxed and ready

South Carolina's early success in the College World Series has put the Gamecocks in a very different position than where they were a year ago on the way to the national championship.

Instead of the yeoman-like effort required to come through the loser's bracket in 2010, USC has played just twice here in a week. And, at 2-0, it's a win away from again being back in the best-of-three series for the NCAA title.

The Gamecocks (52-14) will play Virginia at 7 p.m. today for the right to have a couple of additional off days before the finals begin Monday.

How has the team handled the break? Like it manages everything else.

"This team, we just stay loose. We have fun," sixth-year senior catcher Brady Thomas said. "I don't know if we're ever serious. We've got some characters on the show. You're always in for something new every day."

That much was evidenced during Tuesday's hour-long rain delay. While Virginia paced anxiously around its dugout, several Gamecocks went sprinting into the wet outfield grass, chasing after beach balls and volleying them back into the stands.

All-America pitcher Michael Roth, who started Sunday's game, was the first to come out charging after a ball that had tumbled on to the field. Others followed.

"I really wanted the big beach ball," Roth said. "We were just trying to get the crowd involved - and keep them on our side."

A decade ago, coach Ray Tanner would have been furious with the antics. This week, he just laughed and shook his head.

"I was cut from a little bit of a different cloth, but these guys are teaching me," Tanner said. "They're working with me."

While playing the biggest games of the season, the Gamecocks continue to balance being loose and serious.

At practice Wednesday and Thursday at Creighton, the players cut up one minute and then took coaching the next.

"I think our heads are right where they need to be," said first baseman Christian Walker, who knocked in two runs Tuesday against Virginia.

With a victory today, South Carolina would break its current tie for the record of consecutive NCAA tournament games won. Winners of 13 straight in the tourney, going back to last year's CWS opener, the Gamecocks are currently tied with Southern Cal's run from 1972-1974 and LSU's in 1997-1998.

South Carolina (7-0) is the only team that has yet to lose an NCAA tourney game this season.

Even so, the Gamecocks know their work is not complete, to play for the championship. They know firsthand what happened to Clemson last year after its 2-0 start. And TCU forced a deciding game with UCLA, before the Bruins eventually got through.

"We won our first two, but that's not the ultimate here," Tanner said. "You've got to keep winning."

He added Thursday the Gamecocks are playing with a "mulligan."

"Hopefully we won't need it," Tanner said.

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