OMAHA, Neb. — Four and a half hours before Game 1 of the College World Series finals, KJ Byrd ate lunch with some friends, including South Carolina’s starting pitcher for Sunday night’s game against Arizona, Forrest Koumas.
Byrd has been around the Gamecocks long enough that it was just a casual lunch, with no grand pep talk as Koumas prepared to pitch for the first time since May 25. For Byrd, Koumas and the Gamecocks, Sunday was, in many ways, just another day in Omaha, a place they’ve become so familiar with.
“The good thing about this team is they’re very laid back and they know how to win and I guess they’re very grounded,” said Byrd, who is from Charleston. “They know we’re not those people (who are) like, ‘Oh, are you ready for the game?’ They get enough of that.”
The Gamecocks are trying to become just the second team to win three straight national titles, and for the second straight year, Byrd is in Omaha for the duration of their stay.
Maybe she’ll get to do this again. Maybe she won’t, though she hopes to. She just graduated USC with a degree in psychology and wants to attend medical school. For now, she is enjoying another rewarding trip halfway across the country.
The College World Series is a tricky event for fans from afar to attend. Should they come for the first weekend, since there are no guarantees of their team sticking around? Or should they take a chance and wait to see if their team has a shot to win it all at the end? Very few fans have the financial resources and free time to stay for the entire World Series, which lasts at least 11 days, and 12 if the finals go the distance.
When the Gamecocks clinched a spot in the World Series’ best-of-three finals with a win Friday over Arkansas, many USC fans immediately arranged travel plans. Some already had their bags packed before the Arkansas game even started and drove about 20 hours through the night right after it ended, arriving bleary-eyed Saturday evening to steak dinners at The Drover, Omaha’s most popular restaurant, that surely never tasted so juicy.
Byrd decided last year that she wanted to experience the entire World Series. She drove here, just as she did this year, with a group that now numbers eight, five of whom are staying in one hotel suite, in the shadow of the ballpark in downtown Omaha. Such dedication is not atypical. She attends every USC home baseball game, some on the road, and almost every football game, home and away. She is friends with several USC baseball players, and is closest with fellow seniors Adam Matthews and Michael Roth.
Byrd and her friends sit near the players’ families during games here and greet the team when it returns to its hotel, a couple blocks from the ballpark. The games, usually dramatic affairs for USC in Omaha, are an emotional rollercoaster. During the Friday game against Arkansas, which USC trailed 2-0 in the fifth inning, “I felt almost sick to my stomach,” Byrd said.
She is such a fixture at the World Series that she is on a first-name basis with the ESPN cameraman, Shane, who has frequently put her on television the past two years. This year, he approached her and said, “I remember you from last year.”
Back in Charleston, she said her friends and family call her group “the lucky charms” because the only time they weren’t on TV was last Monday’s loss to Arkansas — USC’s only defeat in the past two World Series.
Her dad, Joe, was here since the beginning of this trip, but had to return to Charleston on Saturday because of work obligations.
“Such a bummer,” KJ said. This would’ve been her third straight year at every World Series game, but a chemistry class prevented her from coming in 2010. To help cover the cost of these trips, she worked almost full-time hours as a nanny for several families in Columbia during the school year.
“This year, I had my dad, so that helped out with the cost,” she said. “It’s not as bad you think it is, because you’ve got a bunch of people staying in the same hotel room. We’re just very careful with food (expenses). It’s a huge financial investment, but this is the one thing I look forward to every year. As long as we come out here, I wouldn’t say it’s become a tradition, but hopefully it will become one.”