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June 29, 2011

Merrifield Revels in Another Title

A year later, the memory still brightly burns.

Of course, it helped when he could watch from afar as his boys won another national championship, after he led them to the first.

"I feel like a proud parent," Whit Merrifield said on Wednesday, as he prepared to play another game of his first professional season. "It's definitely a different feeling. It was awesome to be able to watch them do it. A lot more nerve-wracking when you're watching from the side and not playing."

One year ago today, Merrifield's single settled into right field to beat UCLA, scoring Scott Wingo and delivering South Carolina's first national championship. Last night, Merrifield was watching along with the rest of the country as Wingo drove in two runs to win CWS Most Outstanding Player, and the Gamecocks made it two straight titles.

It was in the visiting clubhouse of the Frederick Keys in Frederick, Md., where Merrifield and his Wilmington teammates were finishing a series. Merrifield had the TV on until the bottom of the eighth, seeing Wingo knock in an insurance run, before the call came to saddle up.

"Got on the bus, and of course it's the one trip our satellite TV is down," Merrifield said. "I started following on Twitter."

One routine 1-2-3 inning, pitched by Matt Price and the final out gloved by Jackie Bradley Jr., and the Gamecocks again held the trophy aloft. Over a thousand miles away, on a cramped bus winding through the Northeast, the guy who helped get it started leaped out of his seat with a war whoop.

"I was pumped up," Merrifield said. "They're used to it. They always give me a hard time about it."

Life has changed for Merrifield in the year since he became a USC legend, obviously from a playing standpoint but also from his surroundings. Almost everywhere he goes nowadays, it's not just Whit Merrifield, .266 hitter for the Blue Rocks.

It's Whit Merrifield, College World Series Hero.

"It happens a lot," Merrifield said. "They'll be a guy once in a while in Wilmington, and being in the Carolina League, a lot of people in Myrtle Beach and my hometown, Winston-Salem. It's definitely changed my life quite a bit. But I'd like to do it again."

Merrifield is enjoying his professional career and kept up with the Gamecocks as much as he could throughout. It helped provide a rest from the daily grind of minor-league life, and of course he could keep spreading the word about USC baseball throughout the next level.

There won't be many who won't know about it now, after back-to-back national championships. The Gamecocks are a dynasty.

Merrifield exulted in the championship and got an extra treat when Wingo finished his magnificent career with the MOP award. The two came to USC for the 2008 season as wet-behind-the-ears rookies, but blossomed into starters in their first years and kept it up for the duration.

Merrifield took his draft position after his junior year while the undrafted Wingo stayed in school and produced the best season of his career. He'll head to pro baseball soon as well, with Merrifield already beginning to pester the Kansas City brass to work out a trade with the L.A. Dodgers so he can reunite with his pal.

"I can't even describe how proud I am of him," Merrifield said. "He's been my best friend since I set foot on that campus. People just don't understand the work he put into his hitting, and he's always been the best fielder I've ever played with."

Now each of them are legends. One can only hope Wingo will be reflecting on his MOP triumph in one year, as a new bunch of Gamecocks claim a third title.

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