It was a night filled with great food, lots of laughter and, yes, a few tears on Tuesday at the Columbus State University athletics Hall of Fame induction banquet.
Mostly, though, it was a night for appreciation.
Three former baseball players and an iconic women’s basketball coach were inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame at the Cunningham Center on campus, writing the final chapters in a handful of impressive stories.
Departing athletic director and the longtime coach of the Lady Cougars Jay Sparks stole the show, earning the adoration of current women’s coach Jonathan Norton, who introduced him, and a standing ovation from those in attendance.
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Former baseball stars Tim Trawick, Jason Burdette and an emotional Chris Gilstrap weren’t far behind.
Sparks, who will spend one more week with the university before starting a new job as the women’s basketball coach at Francis Marion University, spoke third on Tuesday, though his was the biggest reception of all.
Following an emotional introduction from Norton, who was an assistant under Sparks, in which he praised the first coach in the program’s history, who built the program from scratch in 1989, and spoke of how proud Sparks’ dad, Joe, would be, the owner of 367 wins and two Final Four trips deflected the appreciation back on those around him.
“This is a ‘we’ award, not a ‘me’ award,” Sparks said, noting the importance Norton himself had on the team’s success. “(Norton) work two years as a (graduation assistant) and then seven as a full-time assistant. You look at those seven years, and you’re going to see 20 wins, 20 wins, 20 wins, 20 wins, 20 wins, finishing up at the end of that run with 28 wins in 1999-2000 and 31 wins in 2000-2001.”
Norton had already spoken earlier of his mentor’s unwillingness to accept credit for himself.
“He wasn’t afraid to ride in the back seat,” Norton said, adding later as a parting word: “You were respected, you were loved and you will be missed.”
Gilstrap, a Hardaway High graduate and current coach of the Hawks baseball team, warned those gathered with his opening sentence that he has a tendency to get emotional. Before he could finish the sentence, his voice had already cracked.
He gave his entire speech with what can be assumed was a golf-ball sized lump in his throat, telling the story of how he came to Columbus State and how baseball coach Greg Appleton and his teammates in 2001-02 redefined his love for the game.
After spending two years at Young Harris Junior College, where Appleton signed him before taking a job in Columbus shortly thereafter, Gilstrap tried to play ball at the University of Richmond, where, he said, he knew very little about the team.
“Sight unseen,” he said of his scholarship signing. “I knew Richmond was the capital of Virginia and I knew their mascot was the Spiders. That was about all I knew. Looking back, it put me where I am today.”
He did not feel at home there and baseball became more of a job.
“I walked away from baseball,” he said. “It wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t about playing for the eight other guys on the field, it was playing for yourself.”
He left the team, headed back to Columbus and, for a long time, insisted he was finished with baseball. Appleton eventually convinced him he was more than just a student at the school, and Gilstrap spent his remaining two years of eligibility as the team’s shortstop and was the captain of the 2002 national championship team.
His roommate that year and again for some time after college was Burdette, who pitched for the Cougars from 1999-2002. He was the winning pitcher in the 2002 national championship game and spent a short time in the Oakland Athletics organization.
Appleton introduced him on Tuesday night, exaggerating the numbers a bit but explaining the situation in that final 2002 game, nonetheless.
“The most meaningful thing he ever did was pitch nine innings in the national championship game and win the ballgame,” he said. “He had thrown about 300 pitches in the ninth, we made a couple errors and I had about 12 guys in the bullpen. He was always honest with me and would tell me if he was tired. I just knew he was going to tell me he was tired after 140 pitches. But I go out there, and he tells me, ‘I got this.’ We’ll never forget him for that.”
The final inductee, Trawick, also a Hardaway graduate, was arguably the most successful pitcher in the school’s history, compiling a 29-11 record, 3.06 earned run average, 14 complete games, four shutouts and 290 strikeouts in 232 innings.
He, too, praised the coaches who had gotten him to this position.
“He’s the guy who taught me to pitch,” he said of his pitching coach, Chip Reese, adding a story about his first game in the minor leagues after college. He heard other names being announced from colleges like UCLA and his, Columbus College. “I was proud to be there because of the guys who got me there.”