South Carolina honors College World Series win

Jul 1, 2010 - 12:24 AM By PETE IACOBELLI AP Sports Writer

COLUMBIA, S.C.(AP) -- South Carolina's baseball team took its latest victory lap Wednesday, this time in front of more than 13,000 fans who packed the school's basketball arena to honor the College World Series champions.

Captains Kyle Enders and Jay Brown carried the NCAA title trophy into Colonial Life Arena as the school's traditional football opening "2001" played. Gamecocks players held up video cameras as they walked around the arena floor back to a stage set up on the floor.

"Gamecock Nation, how 'bout that?" South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said.

Never before had the Gamecocks returned from an NCAA tournament with as flashy a souvenir as the CWS trophy. The school's only other title came in 2002 by the women's track team.

Mike Cantrell, 60, of West Columbia, has been a Gamecock baseball diehard the past 30 years and wasn't going to miss the program's biggest celebration. "I knew we'd get there," he said. "It took time, but I knew we'd do it."

And like many things in South Carolina more than a century of athletics, it was not easy.

The Gamecocks survived an opening-game loss at Rosenblatt Stadium, battling back with six straight wins, beating state rival Clemson twice to stay alive before sweeping UCLA in the championship series.

"This really hadn't sank in yet until I walked into this place," said Enders, the Gamecocks' starting catcher. "It's really amazing."

Fans were lined up two and three deep about 40 minutes before the doors opened. Dressed out in garnet shirts and caps, they filled much of the arena and watched a replay of Tuesday night's 2-1 clincher against the Bruins. They cheered when closer Matt Price struck out batters to get out of jams in the ninth and 10th innings, then jumped to their feet when outfielder Whit Merrifield struck his game-winning single to send home second baseman Scott Wingo in the bottom of the 11th.

"I don't know if there was a better way for it to end," said Merrifield, a ninth-round pick of Kansas City greeted with chants of "One More Year" from the crowd.

Merrifield's likely to hear that more this week as South Carolina continues celebrating.

Gov. Mark Sanford has declared Thursday as Gamecocks Baseball National Champions Day, and the team's flag will be flown above the Statehouse in Columbia. Clemson received the same honor after the football team won its national championship in 1981. Sanford will award Tanner the state's highest civilian honor, the Order of the Palmetto.

On Friday, Columbia is throwing a ticker-tape parade downtown to honor the team.

"I'm not going anywhere," Merrifield said. "I'm not going to miss that."

Tanner spoke to the crowd of the late 7-year-old Bayler Teal, who befriended the team yet died of neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer, while the team was in Omaha. Teal's memory became a rallying point for players and fans. "He inspired us and he's been watching over us," Tanner said. "Thank you, Bayler."

The ceremony drew past and present Gamecock athletes and coaches. Former basketball star Carlos Powell turned out, as did standout receiver Moe Brown. Women's basketball coach Dawn Staley, who attended the CWS and flew back with the baseball team, showed up, too.

"It's wild in here," Tanner said as he entered.

It wasn't Tanner's deepest rotation, or his most powerful lineup. What this group had, the 14-year coach said, was the resolve to persevere. Despite losing a showdown series with Florida for the Southeastern Conference regular-season crown and going 0-2 at the league tournament, the Gamecocks rallied to win 11 of 12 NCAA tournament games to take the title.

"Some people might say we don't have the most athletic team in the country," South Carolina ace Blake Cooper said. "But we've been resilient all year."

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