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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.

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