Lexington players honoring fans hurt in accident

Special to The StateMarch 4, 2010 

Lexington, SC 2/23/10 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com --- lexington High fans cheer for their team during the Lexington boys Class 4A basketball game against Sumter, Tuesday, February 23, 2010.

GERRY MELENDEZ/GMELENDEZ@THESTATE.COM

The scene that unfolded after Lexington's 72-61 victory over Goose Creek in the Lower State final Friday at The Citadel was one that has played out time and time again this season.

As soon as the Wildcats finished shaking hands with their opponent, they were greeted by the Cat Crazies, the Lexington student section that usually numbers 200 strong.

For the first time in 10 years, Lexington had advanced to the Class 4A state championship game, to be played Friday night in Columbia.

But that euphoria had faded before most of the Wildcats' fans could return home from Charleston.

Six Lexington students - members of the Cat Crazies who had attended the game - were involved in a three-car accident near I-26's U.S. 321 exit. A man who was later charged with drunken driving was traveling the wrong way on the interstate and struck a car that then collided with Lexington student Justin Frierson's vehicle, according to police reports.

"It was a wake-up call and a shock," Crazies leader Drew Harris said. "It's sobered people up and brought them a little bit back down to earth."

Two Lexington students, Brock Baxley and Ronald Strickland, sustained the most serious injuries.

Baxley broke several bones in his right foot, requiring surgery Monday. He faces the prospect of several more surgeries and will not be able to put weight on his foot for three months. Baxley left Providence Hospital on Wednesday.

Strickland had shards of glass go into both eyes, temporarily blinding him. He has undergone surgery, and the prognosis is for his sight to fully return. He can see out of his right eye, but not his left. He has been home since early in the week.

The accident hit Lexington's basketball team hard.

"They've meant everything for us. They have been with us all season, and we definitely would not be here without them," senior forward Matt Welch said. "It's very unfortunate what happened, but we want to find a way to honor them."

The energy and support the Crazies provided the players are being returned in the team's show of support for their injured classmates.

"We're all really good friends," senior forward Corey Hendren said. "They've given so much to us this year, (and) this is our chance to be able to give something back to them. We've all been to the hospital, and we're constantly getting updates on their status."

The Wildcats will play Gaffney in the 4A championship game at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Colonial Life Arena. Five of the six students involved in the accident are planning to attend.

Baxley, the exception, says he will follow the game from home.

"I'm just honored that the team is showing us that much support," he said before he left the hospital Wednesday. "I would love to be a part of it, but I'm going to be following in whatever way that I can."

The plan is to have the other students who were in the accident - Frierson, Strickland, John Michael Aun, Haleigh Fox and Eric Walker - on the floor with the team during pregame warm-ups. Instead of having the reserve players line up as the starting lineups are announced - as is custom - the Crazies will form a tunnel for the Lexington starters to run through to midcourt.

The relationship between the team and the student section is deep-rooted. It started during football season when members of the boys' cross-country and basketball teams wore body paint to home football games.

During basketball season, the football players have returned the favor, and Lexington has enjoyed a home-court advantage, compiling a 13-2 record.

The Crazies are not afraid to take their show on the road, either. Despite the Lower State final being played less than 15 miles from Goose Creek, the Wildcats' student section outnumbered the Gators' by a 3-1 margin.

David Burns, Lexington's senior starting point guard, noticed.

"I'm glad that is brought up because we have wanted to give recognition to our fans," Burns said. "They help us out tremendously. Our fans are amazing and have been with us since Day 1. The way they filled up The Citadel's gym and following us around, they mean a lot to us."

Strickland had been one of the most vocal and outspoken members of the Crazies. During timeouts, he often would do flips - with or without the cheerleaders - revving the crowd to a fever pitch.

Drew Harris, Lexington coach Bailey Harris' son, said the Crazies pattern themselves after the Duke University student section, commonly referred to as the Cameron Crazies.

The Cat Crazies find out as much information about the opponent as possible: nicknames, girlfriends' names - anything they can use to their advantage.

Add to that the fact that 15 to 20 Crazies dress in costumes for each game - ranging from a banana to mustard and ketchup bottles - and it creates an intimidating atmosphere.

"They are having fun," Bailey Harris said. "They do the homework. They are brutal down there. They are loud, and they cheer the whole game. It's a great scene, and I believe it certainly helps our team."

The crowd is expected to grow with the state final being played in Lexington's backyard.

"We walk down the halls, and teachers and people you have never met just come up and give you a handshake and congratulate you," Burns said. "Every single person I've talked to said they are going to be there and they are bringing their families. It's a great buzz going on right now."

The crowd and team are expected to be more emotional than normal when the accident victims take the court.

"I can't imagine what it is going to be like Friday night," said Lexington forward Hendren.

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