COLUMBIA -- Danny Blair stood among several of his far more established teammates on the Founders Park concourse just two days removed from the biggest baseball experience of his life, and he was still smiling broadly.
South Carolina's junior outfielder and shocking MVP of the NCAA Greenville Regional, where the Gamecocks swept three games to advance one step away from the College World Series, wouldn't admit to having the most fun of anybody, but there's an argument to be made.
"I'm definitely up there in the top level of people having fun," he said, his smile growing even wider. "But I think every single person on our team is having fun because this is what it's all about. I was having fun before all this even happened, maybe not to this extent, but it's just a blast for all of us right now to be where we are."
Around the midway point of this season, very few outside the USC program dared even consider the Gamecocks would be preparing to travel to Arkansas for the start of Saturday's best-of-3 Super Regional. It's been an inspiring reversal of fortune and no individual on the team's roster epitomizes that never-quit attitude quite like what Blair displayed in the past three games.
The most memorable moment, and one that will be remembered for a long time should USC reach Omaha and make any sort of run, was Blair's three-run homer with one out in the seventh trailing Ohio State 2-0 in the regional opener. The Gamecocks would go on to score five in the frame and cruise to victory. Blair had only entered the lineup as a defensive replacement for center-fielder and leadoff hitter Noah Campbell.
Coach Mark Kingston decided to give Blair just his ninth start of the season the following night and he responded by going 3-for-4 in a win over top-seeded host East Carolina. Blair remained in the lineup for Monday's clincher against ECU and went 1-for-5 to finish .500 (5-for-10) for the regional with four runs scored. He entered the weekend with one homer on the season and only two in 168 career at-bats.
The three hits equaled his career high and was his first multiple-hit game in over a year. He'd only scored nine runs this season prior to the past three games as well.
"He's been a great teammate even when he wasn't getting playing time," Kingston said. "That's another great story on this journey for us this year of a guy who kept working, kept a positive attitude, and then was rewarded with that MVP."
Kingston added Blair would remain as a starter and the leadoff hitter, saying, "Noah is still very much in the mix and very important to our offense, but I'm a big believer that if you're playing well, ride the guys that are playing well and reward them."
Blair's teammates sounded even more excited for his performance than he was, with senior third-baseman Jonah Bride saying, "It just makes you feel so good for him inside, knowing he hasn't been able to do what he's wanted to do for however long, but has continued to plug and fight and it showed this past weekend. He's a kid who has always done everything right and I can't be more excited for Danny."
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Blair wasn't exactly unknown prior to the start of this season, having started 25 games last year (hitting .258 in 97 at-bats) and 31 over his first two years with the program. He arrived in Columbia ranked the 143rd-best prospect nationally, and 30th-best outfielder, by Perfect Game. However, he wasn't able to earn a regular role, starting only eight times in 35 games played prior to the Regional, mainly contributing late in games as a defensive substitution.
But when his time came, in the most crucial at-bat of his career, Blair seized the day in a big way.
"Your parents, coaches, and everyone tells you growing up that when things aren't going so well to stick with it, keep working hard, and good things will come," Blair said. "There have absolutely been points in my career where I thought maybe that's just what parents and coaches are supposed to tell you, but I think it is true. Coach Kingston says it all the time, you keep working hard and the game will reward you, and it's rewarded our team much more than I even deserve. Hopefully it will keep rewarding us because we have worked so hard."
This article is written by Eric Boynton from Spartanburg Herald-Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.