Gamecock fans welcome home the back-to-back national champions
Mazalee Wilkerson was all decked out in a gray and white dress with a USC emblem, sitting in the front row at the Colonial Life Arena Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the Carolina baseball team to arrive.
She is just 14 months old, but this marked the second year she has attended the celebration for the national champions.
“She was here last year, too, when she was just a couple months old,” said her mother, Carley Wilkerson, who drove to Columbia from Hartsville for the celebration.”We wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
That feeling was all over the arena Wednesday, as nearly 12,000 cheering fans welcomed home the winners of back-to-back College World Series championships.
“We’re here to celebrate the greatest team on the earth,” said Gayle Douglas, a graduate student at USC. “This team seems to love each other. They love the game and they are a pleasure to watch. I almost wanted them to lose (Tuesday night) so I could watch them again.”
Fans lined up early waiting for the arena doors to open at 4 p.m. Once inside they watched a replay of the national championship game on the big screens, cheered and batted beach balls around the arena.
Jackie Patterson got off early from her nursing job in Clinton to get to Columbia by 2 p.m. to find a good seat. (“My boss is a Carolina fan, too, so it was OK,” she said.) Patterson said she loved the rapport and “never give up” attitude of the team. “I mean Christian Walker was playing with a broken bone. It’s unbelievable. You feel like you’re watching ‘The Natural’ or something.”
She was sitting next to her friend Tiffany Grimsley, USC Class of 2003, who drove from Greenville for the celebration. “I’ve been a fan of the school since I was born and I’ve sat through some heart-breaking moments. I had to come for this. It’s great, especially being from Greenville, when I get to wave the garnet flag.”
One young fan, 3-year-old Manning Ruff of Irmo, held a poster showing Xs through pictures of Batman, Superman, the Hulk and Spiderman, and the words “Wingo is My Hero,” a salute to Gamecocks second baseman Scott Wingo, who was named the most outstanding player of the College World Series.
As the word circulated that the team’s bus had arrived shortly after 5 p.m., the arena started rocking with the “GAME-COCKS” chant. Then the familiar notes of “2001” filled the room and the coaches and players – holding the National Championship trophy – entered to thundering applause. The team paraded around the arena floor’s perimeter, shaking hands, waving and smiling, as “We are the Champions,” “Sandstorm” and the Carolina fight song blared. Many players filmed the outpouring of support that was evident all around them.
“What a team, what a family and what a series it was,” said USC President Harris Pastides. “You have represented the University of South Carolina so well and you have made us stronger and better."
The cheers got louder and louder as several players and Coach Ray Tanner came to the podium to address the Gamecock faithful.
“We may not be the most talented guys on the earth, but we’re the best team in the nation,” pitcher Michael Roth said. As the fans chanted, “One more year,” in hopes Roth will come back and play another year of college ball instead of moving on to professional baseball, he answered, “I leave for Spain on Friday, so I’m pretty sure I’ll see you back here in August.” The crowd roared.
Tanner called the Carolina fans the best in the country, saying they deserved to be back-to-back national champions.
“Other players, other coaches talk about you,” he told the crowd. “We had the most support in Omaha from Gamecock Nation by far.”
For those who didn’t make the trip to Nebraska, the welcome-home party at the Colonial Life Arena was the next best thing.
“We couldn’t make it to Omaha so we made it here,” said Michelle Frady of Lexington.
The celebration isn’t over. The city of Columbia will honor the team Friday with a parade down Main Street. “Last year we drew over 40,000 people. I know we can do better this year,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.