Fans give returning champions a heroes’ welcome
Brian Studebaker, wearing his new “Carolina National Champions” T-shirt and carrying his 2-year-old son on his shoulders, made his way down the steps at the Colonial Life Arena Wednesday afternoon.
Less than 18 hours earlier, he had been in Omaha, sitting five rows off the field and watching the Gamecock baseball team defeat UCLA in 11 innings to win the College World Series and become the 2010 NCAA national champions.
“I haven’t been to bed yet,” said Studebaker, a devoted USC fan from Lexington. “We partied until 1:30, then drove to Kansas City, flew through Atlanta, went home for about 30 minutes and headed here.
“I wasn’t going to miss this.”
Neither were about 14,000 other Gamecock fans who packed the arena to welcome the Carolina baseball team home to Columbia. Hours before the team arrived, the sidewalk outside the arena was flooded with a sea of garnet. Inside, chants of “U-S-C” echoed through the arena as seats filled up with fans – from toddlers to senior citizens – who settled in to watch the replay of the Tuesday night game on the big screen.
“It’s once in a lifetime. What a thrill for this university and the state of South Carolina,” said Dode Prickett, a 1985 USC graduate whose wife was a Carolina cheerleader. He drove from St. Matthews with his 10- and 13-year-old sons, who kept asking him where they were going. “You’re going to a big party,” he told them. “It’s something you won’t see many times in your life.” “The state needs it. The university needs it. I’m proud to be part of it,” Prickett said. “It’s one of the happiest days of my life.”
As the team’s bus pulled in, the arena vibrated with the “GAME-COCKS” chant. Then the familiar notes of “2001” filled the room, followed by the fight song and “We Are the Champions,” as the baseball players and coaches paraded in, carrying the national championship trophy. They made their way around the arena floor’s perimeter, slapping hands, waving, hugging fans, and smiling big national-championship smiles.
The coaches and players were introduced to thundering applause, with the biggest cheers reserved for Coach Ray Tanner, who lifted the trophy for all of Gamecock Nation to see. He thanked the fans for providing his team with passion, enthusiasm and resolve.
USC Board of Trustees chairman Miles Loadholt, athletics director Eric Hyman and players Jay Brown, Kyle Enders, Blake Cooper, Jackie Bradley Jr., Whit Merrifield and Scott Wingo addressed the crowd. (Cooper to cries of “Cooooop”; Merrifield to chants of “One More Year” from the crowd, hopeful that the USC junior will put off Major League Baseball a little while longer.) The players thanked their families, their coaches, the university and mostly their fans, who Brown called “the best in the country.”
And the fans were thrilled to be there, to be part of the university’s first national championship in a men’s team sport.
“We had to celebrate and support the team. We love the Gamecocks, and we love baseball,” said Jennifer Clary of Columbia. She met her husband, Matthew, while they were students at Carolina. With them at the arena Monday were their 17-month-old triplets –Benjamin, Cole and Austin – each dressed in a Gamecock baseball uniform. (The boys attended five USC games this year, with a 4-1 record.)
“We are ready to start these boys up right,” said the triplets’ grandmother, Elaine Clary. “This is a Gamecock family.”
And the celebration continues. The city of Columbia will honor the team Friday with a downtown parade. The parade begins at noon at Main and Laurel streets and ends at Main and Gervais.