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September 18, 2012

Soccer: It's rivalry time tonight

Clemson (1-4-2) at South Carolina (2-3-1)
7 p.m. today
Where: Stone Stadium, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the gate
Series: Clemson leads, 23-15-1

It doesn't matter that both teams are coming off difficult road losses. It doesn't matter that both teams have played extremely difficult early-season schedules with mixed results. In short, it doesn't matter what has or has not happened to either team up to this point. All that matters now is that it's South Carolina-Clemson, once again.

Just like it should be. Just like it has to be.

When Clemson (1-4-2) enters Stone Stadium tonight for the 7 p.m. kickoff against USC (2-3-1), more than bragging rights are on the line. Just like in baseball, when it comes to the Gamecocks and Tigers, no rivalry in the Southeast is more fiercely fought or commands as much national respect and attention.

"I played in the ACC at North Carolina, and there is no rivalry in the ACC or in the Southeast that matches up to this game," said coach Mark Berson, whose Gamecocks have won four of the last five meetings against the Tigers. "It's really special, and to be honest, it's special whether we're home or whether we're away. Whether home or away, the crowd, the excitement, the extreme emotion is just special and for our players.

"When we recruit them to come to South Carolina,we talk about being able to play in this game and all that it means. It's a huge game. It's a great game, one that everyone circles on their calendar. Our guys are really looking forward to playing it."

USC is coming off a nailbiting double-overtime 3-2 loss at No. 5 Charlotte last week. Clemson enters the game fresh off a 2-0 loss at Duke on Friday. Both teams will be looking to establish momentum heading into the thick of conference play.

"I'd say these two teams are in exactly the same place," Berson told GamecockCentral.com. "Both teams have played difficult early-season schedules, and I would say both teams are looking to solidify things.

"This is a difficult game to do that, though, because emotions distort the game. I think this game won't settle down until late into first half, the early part of the second half. The emotions really distort the game, because the kids get so amped on adrenaline. But it'll be a great contest, I don't think there's any doubt."

Clemson's lone win came over USC Upstate on Aug. 24. The Tigers have lost at Duke, at Indiana and to Notre Dame and UAB at home to go with ties at Davidson and with Wake Forest. The Gamecocks have wins over the College of Charleston and at then-No. 2 USF to go with losses against then-No. 15 St. John's (now No. 10), Florida Gulf Coast (in Tampa), at Charlotte and a draw with a powerful Northwestern team.

The Tigers, helmed by third-year coach Mike Noonan, feature nine returning starters from the 2011 team and are led by freshman forward TJ Casner and midfielder Manola Sanchez, each of whom have one goal this season. The Gamecocks are led by by junior forward Bradlee Baladez, a preseason All-Conference USA player with two goals and 14 shots already this season, and goalie Alex Long, who tallied a career-high seven saves at Charlotte and who has led USC to three shutouts so far this season, matching the total number of shutouts in 2011.

Though Berson is familiar with the Tigers' roster, he is more concerned with his own.

"We're focused on us," Berson said. "We're trying to make sure we address what we need to do to put our influence on the game. That's where we're at. We know Clemson has a very good team, we know their personnel, but our focus is on us 100 percent. We're saying what have we learned about where we are, though this stretch? What do we need to do to get better? We'll be ready."

While Clemson leads the overall series 23-15-1, the Gamecocks won the last time the two teams met at Stone Stadium in 2010, and Berson hopes playing on a Tuesday will mean a big turnout from the Gamecock faithful.

"I'm hoping playing on Tuesday night will be kind of big, because there's nothing else scheduled," Berson said. "For a Carolina-Clemson game, not competing with Monday Night Football or Thursday Night Football, high school football, I'm kind of intrigued. I hope we could have a pretty good crowd come out to support us. It's going to be fun."

USC quick hits
* USC is in its 35th season of varsity soccer.
* Berson is in his 36th season overall and his 35th season as coach of the Gamecocks. He is assisted by former players Spencer Lewis and Joey Worthen, both in their first season. Another former player for the Gamecocks, Clark Brisson, is the volunteer assistant coach.
* The contest vs. Clemson marks USC's fourth home contest of the season and first since Sept. 2.
* Today is "National Cheeseburger Day," and the first 100 cheeseburgers sold at the concession stand at Stone Stadium will be just $1.
* Following today's contest, USC begins Conference USA play when it travels to No. 23 Tulsa on Friday and SMU on Sept. 24.
* Sophomore midfielder Niklas Kivinen scored the first goal of his career in the impressive 1-0 victory at No. 2 USF on Sept. 6. The Mikkeli, Finland, native posted the score on a free kick opportunity in the first half.
* Junior netminder Alex Long posted his third shutout of the season, and the sixth of his career vs. USF.
* USC ranks 15th in the nation in shutout percentage (Sept. 10 NCAA rankings).
* Former goalkeeper Warren Lipka was honored with a selection to the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame for the 2012 class. Lipka was inducted on Sept. 13 in a ceremony at Williams-Brice Stadium. Lipka, the 1985 National Goalkeeper of the Year, was also an All-American during his time at USC. He was the team captain of the 1985 squad that compiled the most wins in school history (20) and advanced to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
* USC is receiving votes in the most recent NSCAA Top 25, which was released on Sept. 11. (The updated poll will be released today).
* 35th season notable: Over the course of 10 seasons, beginning with the 1985 campaign, Berson led his team to the NCAA tournament nine times out of those 10 years. During the stretch, the Gamecocks went to the NCAA quarterfinals twice (1985, 1989) and the 1993 national championship game. Through the 2011 campaign, USC has advanced to 20 NCAA tournaments, all under the direction of Berson.

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