COLUMBIA — Garnet car flags. Rubber chickens being dragged on strings. The constant reminders of what other sports did last year, or what’s coming this year.
The South Carolina-Clemson rivalry is one of the nation’s most passionate, and the quest to be better than the other carries from the gridiron to the tennis court (if the NCAA sponsored bass fishing, Lake Murray and Lake Hartwell would have fans ringing the shorelines every spring). But in the age of COVID-19, this season’s rivalry, which usually features at least 11 head-to-head matchups throughout the school year, may be held to one.
Clemson opens its men’s soccer season at 7 p.m. Thursday at USC (1-1). With no rivalry football game this season, basketball still unscheduled and uncertainty looming over all other sports, the match could be the only rivalry meeting for the foreseeable future.
“That’s kind of odd how that worked out,” said USC soccer coach Mark Berson, who will retire after this year. “We were excited to open the fall athletic season so this just ends up being another exciting event for us.”
Men’s soccer is almost always the first rivalry matchup of the year, played in the two weeks between the end of August and the beginning of September. It’s usually followed by women’s soccer, volleyball and the annual football game in late November.
Each school has been locked into conference-only fall seasons for women’s soccer and volleyball, and the SEC did the same for football. The ACC gave each of its football teams a plus-one, helping out teams like Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Louisville so they could play their regular non-conference football rivalries, but the SEC didn’t follow.
There’s way too much unknown with the pandemic to know if the basketball seasons or anything else will occur as normal. The USC-Clemson baseball series was played just before sports shut down in March, but could be in jeopardy for 2021. So Thursday at Stone Stadium could be it for the year’s braggin’ rights.
“It’s another big game, not only because it’s Clemson,” USC senior Kyle Gurrieri said. “It’s always been a huge match. Everyone knows how important this game is.”
Clemson coach Mike Noonan and his players were not made available this week for interviews.
Coronavirus restrictions will apply. The 5,000-seat stadium (which has been known to squeeze in more than 7,000) will be capped at 675 on Thursday. Soccer has its own set of fandom and while it may not equal the smack-talk and festive props of football, knowing this could be the only rivalry match of the year might inspire creativity.
“Year-in and year-out we are one of the top 10, if not top five, attended venues in the nation in men’s college soccer,” Berson said. “Look, man, Gamecock fans are pretty loud, pretty proud … They’re going to be showing up in force.”
Berson reflected on how lucky even this game was to get on the schedule. He said there are only 21 Division I teams playing this fall with the season (i.e., the NCAA tournament) continuing in spring.
“We need to thank so many people who have enabled us to have this event,” he said. “Big thanks needs to go out to (USC athletics director) Ray Tanner and the administrative staff and the administrative team, our trainers and our medical personnel, our operations people who have made a safe environment for our players to be able to train and develop during this period.”
As for the match, it’s USC-Clemson. Anything can happen.
With perhaps only one chance to see the rivalry this school year, it’s a good bet everything will happen.
Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.