COLUMBIA - As he walked to the batter's box in the 10th inning Saturday, Brison Celek couldn't escape the memory from five years ago.
USC at The Citadel
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Riley Park
RECORDS: USC 18-1; Citadel 8-12
TICKETS: $10 adults; $4 children
RADIO: 910-AM; 1450-AM
He thought of his first game against in-state rival Clemson. Celek, a South Carolina freshman at the time, had a chance to spark a two-out rally with the Gamecocks trailing by one run. Swing at your pitch, former coach Ray Tanner told him before stepping to the plate.
Instead, he struck out looking.
Standing in the batter's box Saturday, Celek remembered the lesson taught in that moment. He focused on his current at-bat - with catcher Grayson Greiner on second in a tied game - and the irony of coach Chad Holbrook's last piece of advice before stepping to the plate. Swing at your pitch, Holbrook told him.
This time, Celek laced an RBI single down the right field line for the second walk-off hit of his career.
"I was hoping to split the gap so Grayson could score easy," Celek said Monday. "Luckily, it went down the line. He was able to walk home, pretty much."
Congratulatory calls and texts poured in soon after No. 1 South Carolina's doubleheader sweep against No. 20 Ole Miss. Celek, a former high school All-American at Bishop England, was surprised how many fans reached out from back home. It was all in good timing. On Tuesday, the senior first baseman will return to Charleston for the final time in a Gamecocks uniform.
South Carolina will play The Citadel in a 7 p.m. game at Riley Park. Celek said buddies have texted him asking for tickets. Everyone, it seems, wants to take advantage of their final time watching him play in Charleston.
"I like it, because all my friends and family are there," Celek said. "People that wouldn't come up to Columbia normally can come to Charleston and just enjoy a game. It's always great to come back to your home city, especially how awesome Charleston is."
It's a final homecoming Celek didn't expect. Nine months ago, he was planning to begin a professional career.
Celek was drafted in the 31st round by the Toronto Blue Jays last summer. It was a surprising opportunity for a player who wondered if he'd ever be drafted. He immediately jumped at the chance, flying up to the Blue Jays' facility in Dunedin, Fla., to hammer out contract details in person. Unfortunately, negotiations broke down when the Blue Jays discovered a minor health issue that was never disclosed.
Soon after, Celek flew back home to Charleston, en route to Columbia. He said it was tough to forget about what might have been, but familiarity helped his transition back to college life. He quickly spoke with Holbrook, who was happy to have Celek back on the team.
This past Saturday showed why.
"Obviously, I was very, very proud of Brison," Holbrook said after the doubleheader against Ole Miss. "He could've tucked his head and been discouraged he wasn't in the starting lineup, and lo and behold he helped us win the game with the big hit there."
Celek once again has been used in part-time duty this season. He's played 14 games, starting 10. His .237 batting average is behind the .307 he batted last spring, but the senior has come through in big moments.
In his final game against Clemson last month, Celek once again came to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning. He singled to left field, prolonging a rally that led to a 5-3 win and three-game series sweep.
As spring becomes summer, Celek hopes there are more big hits. He said he's enjoying this final ride at South Carolina. Maybe he'll make a new memory Tuesday in his home town.
"It would be nice to capitalize it with a sending off kind of deal," Celek said. "But I'm going to take it all in, enjoy my time at home and playing in front of home fans."
. Tuesday's game will be a homecoming for two other Gamecocks. Connor Bright, a junior infielder/outfielder, played at Wando High. Zack Madden, a freshman outfielder, played at Bishop England.