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February 9, 2009

Atten-hut! Gamecocks hold Boot Camp

[ Boot Camp Photo Feature (taken by Paul Collins)]

Not the chilling realism of "Full Metal Jacket," not the comedic genius of "Stripes."

And not bad.

South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, his assistants and the Gamecocks themselves welcomed a group of 75-100 students to Colonial Life Arena on Monday, thanking the Garnet Army for its support so far and encouraging the group to keep it up. The event, featuring games, giveaways and some one-on-one with the Gamecocks, was labeled the Garnet Army Boot Camp, and the players and coaches filled their roles admirably.

"The big thing is we just wanted to continue to reach out to our students, let them know they're an extension to our team, and how important they are to us," said Horn, who made his entrance clad in his Garnet Army T-shirt after Austin Steed called for "the sergeant." "The student sections, they drive the energy and the atmosphere in the arena. The thing that's great about it is, nobody else in the arena, the regular season ticket-holders will say, ‘Boy, it's better when the students are good.' That's why it's so important."

Since the promotion was begun three weeks ago, the Garnet Army has had a vocal presence at USC's home games. Filling three sections of the lower bowl at the Colonial, the fans have had a distinctive presence, wearing the garnet-black-white-gray camouflage-patterned shirts.

Horn, who also held an open practice in front of students before the season began, has constantly encouraged the students to support the team and has been pleased with the turnout. While he's always on the lookout for more -- when it was his turn with the microphone on Monday, he asked for more noise, more obnoxious comments and more rowdiness at home games -- he's liked what he's seen so far.

Asked if he was trying to emulate one of the student sections he's seen during his career, Horn said it wasn't a case of imitating one, but rather all. The benefit a student group can give a team was so important to him he made it a priority from Day 1, along with the actual planning for the season.

"I've seen so many good ones," he said. "Collectively, I don't know if there's an individual one, but you can tell you're in a big-time environment when the students are there."

The group, flanked by some of USC's dance team members and cheerleaders, plus overstuffed mascot Cocky, was greeted by character coach Jack Easterby, who complemented his T-shirt with the same camouflage-patterned pants and a matching military cap. Bawling orders through his mic, Easterby ordered the students to stand and applaud as the team made its entrance, single-file down one of the Colonial's aisles.

The team introduced each other, joking throughout, until Horn came down the steps, pausing long enough to high-five several of the students. Once he got the mic, he issued his own thank-yous and spoke of how important the students were to his goal.

"Together, we're going to keep building something special here," he promised, before the first event got underway.

Volunteers were chosen for a contest where each student had to drop for five push-ups (with a player standing over each, making sure they were done correctly), pick up a basketball and drive the court for a layup. Once they hit nylon, they had to tuck the ball between their knees and hop back across the court.

After that came the 3-point around the world shoot, Evka Baniulis and Devan Downey backing up each student who attempted the shot. Then the Gamecocks played defense while Horn drew up a few plays for a team of students to run against the D -- one guy got a great backdoor cut on Mitchell Carter but bailed the defense out by missing the bunny.

Baniulis took the mic and walked into the crowd, asking questions during one-on-one interviews before relinquishing it to Horn, who had his own Q&A session. Answering questions ranging from "What's the biggest difference between coaching at Western Kentucky and USC?" to "Who would you love to see the Gamecocks play in the national championship game?," Horn worked the crowd like a seasoned politician with jokes and sincere answers.

"What else can we do?" queried one student, clad in his camo T-shirt, shorts and a set of garnet suspenders. "You don't have to wear those suspenders," Horn cracked, before asking each of the students there to be always ready during the games. If they ever sensed or saw a spot where the Gamecocks were dragging, Horn said to pick yourself up and do the same to the person beside you.

"We want the people next to you to feel completely embarrassed if they're not cheering," he said.

The party broke into an autograph session and Horn and his players signed posters, towels and camo bandannas. Horn kept thanking each student who stopped in front of him and wished each one well.

"It's always been a focal point of what we do," he said. "Just because I think it's important for our players to understand, and important for our students to know, that they're a big part of what we do."

"They really do help us," Baniulis said. "When we get down, to see them over there in the shirts and cheering, it really helps."

[ Boot Camp Photo Feature (taken by Paul Collins)]




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