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May 6, 2011

Buscher Earns Greatest Prize

Brian Buscher has two College World Series rings and helped win an American League Central Division championship. He has stared down some of baseball's best pitchers and played in 164 career games at the game's highest level.

Several million people the world over have college degrees, with the great, great majority of them never having the talent nor the luck to step foot on a major-league diamond with a uniform on. Buscher had that, but wanted what they had.

"I was a little bit jealous of seeing people with class rings and things like that," Buscher said on Thursday. "It only took me 12 years to do it, but I finally got it done."

He had horsehide, but no sheepskin.

He earns that prize on Saturday.

Buscher, South Carolina's undergraduate assistant coach, will obtain his degree from USC on Saturday while he's helping prepare the No. 2 Gamecocks for Game 2 of their weekend series at Ole Miss. He -- nor three of the other five baseball players who are graduating this year -- won't be in person to walk across the stage and greet USC President Harris Pastides, as he's exchanged his graduation robe for a set of cleats and his black mortarboard cap for the familiar garnet headgear.

But he'll know, probably at the moment that he figures the speaker would get to his name if he were there. Buscher will be a college grad.

"It's been a long time coming," he said. "Something I always wanted to get accomplished, even though I had to go play pro ball. It's kind of a foundation for life these days. Something I had to get done, not just for me, but my family."

Buscher left USC after a two-year tenure with the Gamecocks, finishing with two straight College World Series trips (2002 and 2003) after transferring to USC from Central Florida Community College (now College of Central Florida). A tremendous hitter, Buscher earned All-American honors as a senior when he batted .393, still the highest average by any Gamecock over the past 13 seasons.

He was snapped up by San Francisco in the third round of the 2003 draft and headed off to start his career, still 15 hours short of his degree. He, like many other athletes who go on to professional careers, always intended to come back and finish.

Professional careers can last for a while. Family becomes a consideration. Life after sports also factors in, and many of those good intentions never pan out.

Buscher had spent seven years in pro baseball and the final two and a half at the highest level, helping the Minnesota Twins win the division pennant and advance to the 2009 playoffs. The next year saw a release from the majors and 47 games of minor-league ball, and then there was the call of family -- Buscher and his wife, Sarah, have an infant daughter.

The pull of finishing what he started was still strong. Once Buscher got settled back into civilian life, he re-enrolled at USC and began finishing his course load.

"It was tough," Buscher admitted. "I got a little baby now, she's 13 months. My wife's working part-time. During naps and early in the morning, I would try to get my studying done.

"It's a tough job to balance out, but it's just something we had to get done."

Coach Ray Tanner helped Buscher out with a job, asking him to work with the Gamecocks' corner infielders and be the bench coach during games. During the fall semester, Buscher took 12 hours of academics as well as working with the baseball team, then enrolled in his last class this spring while the season began.

He got the notice that he had passed and his degree was almost in hand. He, Brady Thomas (nursing), Alex Burrell (computer science) and Jose Mata (sociology) are with the Gamecocks this weekend as they play the Rebels, but all are recognized as part of USC's latest commencement exercises, where the university will award 4,866 degrees for just its Columbia campus.

"It was something I always wanted to do," Buscher said. "My dad got his degree from Jacksonville University, and I was next in line in our family. It's something special to say you got done."

Tanner agreed, recalling his own days as a student -- the coach holds a bachelor's and a master's from NC State.

"I remember many, many years ago when I finally got to that point," Tanner said. "It was a great day. I'm so proud of those guys.

"Here's a young man that played junior-college baseball, he came here, he got drafted pretty high, he played in the College World Series, he played two years in the big leagues, he came back and finished his degree. Hopefully, he'll have a career in coaching. That's special."

Buscher plans to pursue coaching, as his specific major was children's psychology, which helped him when conducting baseball camps and being around young people. It also might have helped understand the zaniness of USC's current team -- studying the Gamecocks this season could give Sigmund Freud another career.

He won't get to walk this weekend, but will be spending his time trying to teach some batters how to earn walks. Buscher earned his.

"I got to get my degree done and do some coaching at the best program in the country," he said. "I can't complain about that."

NOTE: Richard Royal (mechanical engineering) and David de la Chappelle (political science) were part of the Gamecocks' fall roster this year and will also graduate this weekend.

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