As far as exits go, Whit Merrifield might have scripted the best one in South Carolina history.
He delivered the game-winning RBI single that lifted the Gamecocks over UCLA 2-1 in 11 innings last week for the first national championship in program history. He returned from Omaha with "rock star" status and couldn't go out in Columbia without being mobbed by well-wishers.
The junior outfielder is leaving on a high note.
Merrifield, a ninth-round draft choice by the Kansas City Royals, agreed to terms with the organization this week and will report to its low-Class A affiliate next week in Burlington, Iowa.
He said his decision to forgo his final college season was made easier by "what happened in Omaha."
Merrifield was on the verge of breaking several offensive records had he returned for his senior year, most notably the school's career hits mark. But the North Carolina native said individual records were never his main objection.
"My goal when I got to this program was to help lead us to a national championship, and I felt like I accomplished that," Merrifield said Thursday in a phone interview. "Those (records) were just perks. I feel like I accomplished everything I set out to, and it's time to start my professional career now."
Merrifield, who hit .321 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs in 2010, will start his career in the Midwest League, where his father, Bill, spent two seasons in Peoria, Ill., with the then-California Angels' affiliate.
What did Merrifield's dad tell him about the Midwest League?
"He said it's a whole lot of nothing -- except baseball, which is perfectly fine with me," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."
The Iowa calm will be a departure from the storm that surrounded the Gamecocks' homecoming after the College World Series. Besides the Colonial Life Arena celebration and parade down Main Street, Merrifield said there were plenty of other impromptu festivities.
"It was crazy just being around Columbia. It was like (being) a rock star," he said. "Everywhere you went, people were coming up saying congratulations, shaking your hand and asking you for an autograph. It was a really special time."
Merrifield is one of three USC players preparing to begin their pro careers with the Royals' organization. Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said junior right-hander Parker Bangs, a 31st-round selection, is headed to Arizona for extended spring training. Senior pitcher Jordan Propst, taken by Kansas City in the 49th round, also is at the Royals' training complex.
Merrifield spent several days over the holiday weekend with his girlfriend and her family in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Even out of uniform, Merrifield was recognized by fans at a beachside restaurant.
Tanner said he did not expect Merrifield or starting pitcher Sam Dyson, a fourth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, to come back for their final seasons.
The coach said he is proud of the progression made by Merrifield, who arrived at Columbia as an undersized player who was not drafted out of high school.
"He did it the right way and became a draft pick, won a national championship," Tanner said. "Doesn't get much better than that."