Fans celebrate USC's national championship

(Photo: Philip Weiss)
(Photo: Philip Weiss)
(Photo: Philip Weiss)
(Photo: Philip Weiss)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Gamecocks flag is flying on top of the South Carolina state capitol.

Columbia's classic rock station is taking requests for the school's fight song and state senators briefly put aside debate on redistricting to call for university trustees to name the baseball stadium after the team's head coach.

Yep, Columbia is celebrating South Carolina's second straight baseball national championship.

The team came home Wednesday to 11,820 screaming fans at the school's basketball arena. On the stage was the 2010 trophy. Captain Scott Wingo brought in the 2011 trophy as "We Are the Champions" played.

The second trophy might even have been a surprise to coach Ray Tanner. Athletic director Eric Hyman told a story about consulting Tanner on the trophy case for the baseball stadium after winning last year's title. Tanner appeared to be happy with a design that would fit just one trophy. Hyman said there needed to be more room.

"I won out on that one," Hyman said.

The crowd chanted "one more year" to junior ace pitcher Michael Roth, who was picked in the 31st round of the Major League draft by the Cleveland Indians.

"I'm pretty sure I'll see you back here in August," said Roth, who in five appearances in the past two College World Series has a 1.17 ERA in 38 1-3 innings.

The party happened just a few block from the Statehouse, where the governor's declaration put the Gamecock flag on the dome in the same spot where the Confederate flag waved for decades. The party keeps going Friday, when the city of Columbia plans a parade down Main Street.

Although it will likely never be as big as football in South Carolina, the baseball team has found a special place in the hearts of long-suffering Gamecocks fans. After all, how many of them could imagine a time where they could talk about a national championship in a major sport? And now they can have the enviable discussion about which one was better.

The fans wore T-shirts not just celebrating the baseball titles, but also last year's appearance by the football team in the Southeastern Conference title game as well as the Gamecocks wins in the past 18 months over No. 1 Alabama in football and No. 1 Kentucky in men's basketball.

"We've been through the grinder. We've seen heartbreak for many, many years. That's why this means so much," said 78-year-old Frank Hays of Hartsville.

The baseball team also quieted talk about a "chicken curse." The Gamecocks have won 16 NCAA tournament games in a row and 11 straight College World Series games since dropping the opener of the College World Series last year to Oklahoma. Both are NCAA records. During the postseason run, South Carolina has won four games in extra innings and seven of those games by one run.

"We may not be the most talented team in the world," Roth said. "But we are the best team in the nation."

The win got a $75,000 bonus for head coach Ray Tanner, but will also likely elevate him to greater heights. In 15 years with the school, he has missed the NCAA tournament just twice — both time in his first three seasons. His winning percentage with the Gamecocks is .699.

And there will undoubtedly be a push to name South Carolina's 3-year-old baseball stadium in his honor, as evidenced on the floor of the South Carolina Senate on Wednesday. Senators mentioned both the back-to-back titles and Tanner's work with his charitable foundation for both poor children and d ,kids with medical needs.

"These guys win the games," Tanner said, deflecting talk about his legacy or what he means to the school. "I have great assistant coaches."

Tanner guided a team that lost several key contributors, then suddenly got knocked with injuries. At one point, Tanner had to turn to his bullpen because he ran out of healthy outfielders. Then, first baseman Christian Walker fractured his wrist just before the final series with Florida, but still played, getting four hits in nine at-bats in the two games and scoring the winning run in the 11th inning of the opener.

Walker got one of the biggest cheers of the night when he lifted his arm, in a black cast, and waved it to the crowd. He declined his coach's invitation to speak, saying "that's your job."

Tanner said he was amazed by Walker's resilience to play through pain and by the number of tough plays his team made to stay undefeated. He said the one that stuck out in his mind the most was Wingo's diving stab with the bases loaded, no outs and the game tied in the bottom of the ninth against Florida in the championship series opener. Wingo's throw to home was short, but Robert Beary pulled it out of the dirt with his catcher's mitt.

"Some people say hey, you guys are pretty lucky, well, maybe so," Tanner said. "But these guys have to make plays. It's just not routine. You still have to field, catch and throw and create double plays when you need one."

Copyright The Associated Press 2011. All rights reserved.