Gamecocks' banner year tops Palmetto State stories
For South Carolina fans, 2010 was the year they longed for -- and probably never thought they'd see.
It was 12 months of celebrations and success for a program even its staunchest fans thought was cursed. The jubilation started last January when South Carolina's struggling basketball team toppled top-ranked and then unbeaten Kentucky, ran through the summer's College World Series triumph and closed this month with the Gamecocks' appearance in the Southeastern Conference football championship game.
And the basketball team wasn't the only squad to beat a No. 1. The baseball team beat top-ranked Arizona State in Omaha, Neb., last June and football knocked off No. 1 defending national champion Alabama at frenzied Williams- Brice Stadium in October.
"Since our basketball team had beat the No. 1 (team) and our baseball team had done it, I said, 'Fellas, if fate means for us to win this game Saturday then let's give it a chance.' " South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier said after the Gamecocks' 35-21 triumph over the Crimson Tide.
Nothing, though, rivaled baseball's run to the school's first men's national title. The Gamecocks had been one of the country's top teams all spring, but figured to be overmatched in Omaha against powerhouses like UCLA and the No. 1 Sun Devils. Instead, South Carolina shook off a first-game loss and won six straight for the title. The surge included two in a row over rival Clemson to reach the championship series and two straight over UCLA to claim the crown.
Whit Merrifield's bottom of the 11th single scored Scott Wingo with the title-winning run and touched off a celebration in Omaha -- Spurrier was on scene -- and on campus like few others in school history.
The team returned to a packed celebration at the Colonial Life Arena. There was a tickertape parade two days later the city says drew about 40,000 people.
"You have been the greatest," coach Ray Tanner told the adoring throngs. "And now you get the opportunity to celebrate the number one baseball team in the United States."
Only a football title could trump those festivities, and Spurrier nearly brought the SEC crown home in his sixth season despite an embarrassing NCAA investigation into agent contact and players staying at hotel rooms for reduced rates. Several players missed practice time because of the NCAA inquiry while highly regarded tight end Weslye Saunders was dismissed from the program in September.
The NCAA's letter of inquiry arrived the same month and threatened to overwhelm a team unaccustomed to major success. Instead, freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore and sophomore wideout Alshon Jeffery led the Gamecocks to a football season unmatched since joining the SEC in 1992.
Besides dumping Alabama, South Carolina beat the East Division's power trio of Georgia, Tennessee and Florida, with the win over the Gators ending an 0-12 mark in Gainesville and clinching the SEC East.
But the Gamecocks could not overcome Auburn in the title game, leaving Spurrier with hope of greater success ahead.
Not everything went South Carolina's way this season. The school has yet to receive the NCAA's decision about the football investigation. Women's basketball coach Dawn Staley lost SEC newcomer of the year Kelsey Bone, considered by some the highest-ranked recruit in any sport to choose USC, when the freshman transferred. And the Gamecocks were shook by the loss of two beloved personalities.
Former wideout Kenny McKinley apparently took his own life in September just two weeks after attending South Carolina's 17-6 win over Georgia. The senseless death brought Spurrier and former teammates to tears, while Bob Fulton, who spent 40 years as South Carolina's "Voice," died in November at 89.
While the Gamecocks were out front this season, there were plenty of other stories that kept the Palmetto State's sports world spinning.
Clemson football was expected to build on its 2009 Atlantic Coast Conference title game appearance, particularly after two-sport star Kyle Parker passed up about $800,000 in additional money from the Colorado Rockies for a final season of college. Instead, the Tigers showed inconsistency on offense and stumbled to a 6-6 regular season in Dabo Swinney's second full year.
At least Parker got to experience team success with Tigers baseball, advancing to the College World Series before getting dumped two straight games by the rival Gamecocks.
Clemson defensive end DaQuan Bowers finally lived up to his potential with 15 1/2 sacks to lead the ACC. Bowers said he was inspired by the unexpected deaths of his father, Dennis, in August and mentor Gaines Adams, the former Tigers defensive star and Chicago Bears lineman who died in January.
Clemson basketball tied a school record with its third straight NCAA tournament appearance. But soon after the Tigers were in turmoil when coach Oliver Purnell surprisingly left for DePaul. Brad Brownell was hired from Wright State as Purnell's successor.
The PGA Tour's Heritage ended an era when Verizon's two-decade sponsorship ended last April. The Hilton Head tournament still has not found a replacement sponsor and its life after next year could be in doubt.
Darlington Raceway's future appears solid after another successful season that included the track's first NASCAR truck race in six years. All three of NASCAR's top series will come back in 2011.
But the track and stock car racing lost a longtime friend in former Darlington president and sport executive Jim Hunter, who was remembered by top drivers and the rest of the NASCAR family in Darlington after his death last November.