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June 29, 2011

BLOG: The Greatest Year Ever for USC?

OMAHA, Neb. -- The neat thing about South Carolina capturing their second consecutive national championship in baseball is that USC fans don't need to concern themselves with Orel Hershiser or another ESPN analyst saying anything complimentary about the Gamecocks.

Why? The rings speak for themselves.

Tuesday night's title-clinching victory over Florida capped off possibly the greatest calendar year in the history of USC athletics. And it is truly that because the Gamecocks dog-piled in Omaha exactly 365 days after Whit Merrifield delivered his dramatic game-winning hit to beat UCLA in extra innings. Consider that in the last twelve months:

1. The baseball program has brought the school their first two national championships in one of the three major men's sports. In addition, Chad Holbrook withdrew from consideration for the Tennessee head coaching job, meaning he'll be around Columbia for at least one more season until the next major program comes calling.

2. The football team ended almost two decades of frustration by finally winning the SEC Eastern Division to secure a spot in the conference championship game in Atlanta for the first time since joining the conference in 1992.

3. Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's No. 1 prospect, announced his commitment to USC on national TV in mid-February and then signed a letter of intent with the Gamecocks. He's set to enroll in Summer II classes starting July 5.

4. The men's soccer team under head coach Mark Berson reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for their best finish since 1998.

5. The women's basketball team finished among the top five teams in the rugged SEC for the first time since 2002-2003 season and participated in the WNIT, continuing a steady climb up the ladder under head coach Dawn Staley, who later spurned Virginia, her alma mater, to stay at USC. She eventually received a three-year contract extension.

6. New men's tennis coach Josh Goffi put together one of the top recruiting classes in the nation as tennisrecruiting.net ranked USC's incoming class at No. 3, the first time ever the Gamecocks have been rated in the Top 25. The sparkling new tennis complex at the Roost is set to debut in the fall, so the fortunes of both the men's and women's tennis programs should experience an upswing in coming years.

7. The women's golf team competed at the NCAA Championships for the second straight year.

8. The women's soccer team reached the SEC Tournament championship game again and earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, where they advanced as far as the second round.

And on and on.

Indeed, the 1ast 12 months have largely been kind to Gamecocks fans. Sure, a few teams didn't perform up to expectations (men's basketball), but generally you could pass the snicker test by describing the period stretching from June 29, 2010 to June 28, 2011 as the single greatest calendar year in school history.

It's important because the USC athletic department continues to take giant steps every year. Here's what William Hubbard, a prominent member of the school's Board of Trustees and chairman of the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee, told me on the TD Ameritrade Park Field while the USC players celebrated the national title around us:

"There is a lot momentum," he said. "There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. We have the framework and the platform now to keep this progress going forward. It's really exciting."

And 2011-2012 holds abundant promise as well. Athletic director Eric Hyman told me in Omaha that the excitement within the athletic department for the 2011 football season in unprecedented. The men's basketball team should be improved (no place to go but up?) and the baseball team will attempt the three-peat starting next February.

But most of the news could be made off the field. The beautiful $15 million Farmer's Market project should in the final stages of construction by this point next year, while the target date for completing the new athletics administration (a/k/a coaches support) is spring of 2012. By then, the tennis complex should be done and the planned improvements to the softball stadium and Proving Ground should be nearing the start line.

When the Long-Range Master Facilities Plan was revealed in November of 2006, it was estimated by the architectural firm in charge that the total cost of upgrading and building new athletic facilities was $200 million. A significant chunk of that has already been spent, with more projects on the way.

As I've often said, the cost of competing in the SEC is extremely high. But the price must be paid if you want to stay above mediocre.

"If you want to have a first class program, you have to have first class facilities," Hubbard told me. "You can tell in baseball. Some of these athletes came here because of the facilities. We're going to keep improving in football and basketball and all the way across the board."

Strap your seat belts in because the wild carnival ride known as Gamecock athletics is only getting started.


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