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USC built it; fans came

Darius Rucker sings the National Anthem before the first game at Carolina Stadium.
Darius Rucker sings the National Anthem before the first game at Carolina Stadium.

On Opening Day for Carolina Stadium, a standing-room-only crowd of 8,153 crammed into every nook and cranny of the new $35.6 million ballpark to watch the Gamecocks shut out Duquesne 13-0.

Here’s what a three-hour game day tour around the park turned up Saturday.

1ST INNING:

GROUND INVASION

A platoon of foot soldiers in the Garnet Army — the rowdy student section at Colonial Life Arena basketball games — marches over to establish a foothold in the right-field corner.

They squeeze in next to the right-field foul pole at the front of the grassy Bi-Lo Berm and make their presence known to Duquesne right-fielder Derek Fallecker.

“He’s turned around like three times and laughed,” says James Roper, a USC sophomore from Pendleton who is wearing his official camouflage gear.

Along with Dillon Smith, a sophomore from Augusta, Ravi Patel, a freshman from Summerton, and Brad Overstreet, a sophomore from Anderson, Roper notes the troops were going above and beyond the call of duty by also reporting to the basketball game against Arkansas that evening.

“We’re pulling a doubleheader today,” he brags.

From chanting “Three up, three down!” when the Dukes quickly go down in the first inning to screaming at the Dukes outfielders to drop fly balls, the four do their part to christen the new field from a heckling standpoint.

And when USC’s first-ever run in the stadium scores on a Parker Bangs single, they go wild.

Shouts an ecstatic Roper, “First one, baby!”

2ND INNING:

FATHER AND SON

Things are a little tamer in the front row of the left field bleachers where Scott Butcher of Chapin sits with his 4-year-old son, Wyatt, who is holding a Wilson A450 glove ready to catch a home run ball.

“It’s a great view from here,” Butcher says.

He appreciates the view more than anyone after serving as the safety director on the project for Contract Construction, which built the ballpark. Seeing the finished product full of fans is especially satisfying for him.

The game caps a full day for Butcher, a former pitcher at Newberry College in the early 1990s. He had taken Wyatt to his first T-Ball practice earlier that morning with Irmo Little League at Friarsgate Park. But he really enjoys sharing this moment with Wyatt, who stands at the ready.

“He’s been designated as the row protector,” says Butcher, who brought his son to the field several times during the construction process.

“One time we were walking on the infield, and he looked up at me and said, ‘I think I’d like to play here.’”

3RD INNING:

BREAK OUT THE DUKES

Not everyone in the ballpark is wearing garnet and black. A group of about 30 fans sitting down the third-base line is decked out in Duquesne shirts and caps.

Kim Carroll of New Martinsville, W.Va., is designated the spokesmom for the group.

She has two sons on the team — Mike, a senior catcher, and Brandon, a backup infielder — and she insists these fans would have been at the Dukes’ first game no matter where it was being played.

But they’re all enjoying Carolina Stadium. They even tailgated among all the Gamecock fans before the gates opened.

“Everybody was so hospitable,” she says.

She really loves what she’s seeing after coming inside the new ballpark.

“It’s just great to be here in this stadium. It’s unbelievable, the atmosphere, the excitement, the enthusiasm,” Carroll says.

She adds that it’s snowing back in Pittsburgh, the Dukes’ home base, and that this is the first time the team has played outdoors since the start of practice three weeks ago.

Staying at the Embassy Suites, she says the Dukes fans will be back out today and Monday.

“We wouldn’t miss it.”

4TH INNING:

FINAL GO-AROUND

One parent standing on the concourse on the opposite side is Dean Crisp, the former Columbia police chief and father of senior third baseman Andrew Crisp.

Andrew might have signed professionally earlier in his career except for a string of injuries. But his father says it’s a good thing Andrew is still here to play in the new facility.

“Things do happen for a reason,” Dean Crisp says. “Seeing him excited about this new ballpark is exciting for our family.

“He’s a captain this year and taking on a leadership role. He told me, ‘Dad, every day I’m going to make the most of this. It’s so special to play in this park and this program.’”

Crisp, who points to the scoreboard to note that pitcher Sam Dyson is throwing 96 mph, says he saw many former teammates of his son in the parking lot before the game, and they would love to be in Andrew’s shoes on this day.

DeAngelo Mack then launches the first USC homer in the stadium to center field.

“It’s gone,” says Crisp.

A former minor league player, Crisp has seen many parks while following his sons.

“I don’t know if you can find another college that can match this place.”

5TH INNING:

PICTURE PERFECT SETTING

Greg Dodson sits in the second row behind the USC dugout, snapping picture after picture of the field with his Nikon D90 camera.

He wants to capture it all. By the middle of the fifth, he has shot 91 pictures.

“It’s like multiple shots of some of the same stuff,” he says.

He drove down from his home in Fort Mill with his wife, Ashley. His father, Larry, has season tickets, and they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come.

“This is nice. It feels like a real baseball stadium,” says Dodson, who loves the video board, the backdrop of the city skyline and the comfortable chair-back seats.

Ashley likes the spaciousness of the women’s restrooms.

As Justin Dalles launches USC’s second homer of the day, the fans all around stand up and cheer. There is much to cheer on this day. One more thing would make the day perfect.

“I’m still waiting for a foul ball to come over,” Dodson says.

6TH INNING:

NUTS ABOUT BASEBALL

At the Nutty Bavarian concession cart right behind home plate, Margaret Osburn and Kirkland Jordan wait on a steady flow of customers in search of tasty cinnamon glazed nuts.

From the time the gates opened to this point, business has been good. Lisa Jordan and her husband, James, run this stand and the Maui Wowi stands at the Colonial Life Arena and now Carolina Stadium.

Things got so busy early in the game she had to bring extra inventory over from the basketball arena.

“I can’t keep up,” she says.

But the 1985 USC graduate wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We love the people, and we love the Gamecocks,” she says.

Osburn loves the view from her spot.

“We can see the action on the video board,” she says.

Lisa Jordan can’t disagree.

“It is a good spot, isn’t it?”

7TH INNING:

TIME TO STRETCH

As the fans sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch, nobody is enjoying the Gamecocks cruising to victory more than Wayne and Linda Vereen and their daughter Lindsey.

The Myrtle Beach family has season tickets in the first row right behind the visiting dugout.

“This is where we sat at Sarge Frye Field, and we asked for the same seats,” says Wayne, a 1969 USC grad who is amazed by what he’s witnessing.

“I was disappointed they were leaving Sarge Frye because I had so many memories there,” Wayne says. “But this is phenomenal. It’s better than I thought it would be.”

His family of grads — Linda finished in 1968 and Lindsey in 2007 — are equally impressed.

Wayne made it a point to speak to former coach Bobby Richardson, the old Yankees star who tossed out one of the first pitches. And he likes being right behind the opponents and the good-natured ribbing that goes along with it.

“We’ll poke at each other throughout the game. It’s just baseball.”

8TH INNING:

WHERE’S THE FIRE?

A few Columbia firefighters watch the field from the railing upstairs near one of the luxury suites.

Instead of killing time at Station No. 2 on Ferguson Street near the ballpark, they wait on calls while people-watching at the game and doing a little logistics assessment.

“If we ever had a call here, we would be the first truck here,” says James Hott.

All of them quietly marvel at the ballpark’s many amenities.

“I like the openness of it,” says Adam Menie. “You can walk all along the rail and view the game all around.”

Terry Dreher agrees.

“I love it. It’s gorgeous,” he says, then points to the video board. “It’s awesome.”

That particular word seems to spread around the park like a brush fire.

“This should be ranked one of the top stadiums in the country,” Dreher adds.

9TH INNING:

STAYING UNTIL THE END

As the sun starts to set and put many seats in the cool of the shade, the crowd thins out considerably.

But Joey Scruggs and his 9-year-old twin sons, Jacob and Josh, are not ready to leave, even with the Gamecocks up 13-0.

“We like hanging around,” Joey says. “We’re in no hurry to go home.”

The trio began the day in the left-field bleachers but moved in the eighth inning to a now wide-open area down the third-base line.

“The boys want to catch a foul ball. They got tired of waiting on a home run,” Joey says.

They even plan to hang around after the game is over.

“They want to go meet some players,” Joey says.

“Could we?” asks Josh.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Joey answers.

The boys, who have their first baseball practice in the Batesburg-Leesville Dixie Youth League on Monday, plan to return with their dad. But this special day isn’t quite over yet.

“We definitely wanted to make this one,” Joey says.

Reach White at (803) 771-8643.

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