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Top 20 student-athletes in 2012

The 2012 calendar year saw South Carolina student-athletes break school records, lead their teams to big victories, and earn national notoriety. In this special Christmas Eve feature, we take a look at the Top 20 student-athletes across sports.

Given his contributions on the field and the notoriety he's brought to the university off the field, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the top student-athlete for South Carolina in 2012.

1. Jadeveon Clowney: There could be a case made for several student-athletes to be named tops in 2012 but, when balancing accomplishments on the field and notoriety brought to the school off of it, Clowney was an easy choice. A sophomore, Clowney was a consensus All-American earning first team honors from the five major organizations. He is one of four players in school history to enjoy consensus honors joining running back George Rodgers (1980), offensive guard Del Wilkes (1984), and defensive end Melvin Ingram (2011). Rodgers and Clowney were the only two of the group to earn all five awards with Wilkes and Ingram earning four apiece.

On the field, Clowney set a new record for sacks in a season with 13.0, tackles for loss with 21.5, and sacks in a game notching 4.5 in the season-ending 27-17 victory over Clemson. Aside from his dominance of the Tigers, he helped to seal the 38-35 victory over Tennessee with a sack of quarterback Tyler Bray in the waning minutes of the game and he paced a dominant defensive effort in the Gamecocks’ third straight victory over Georgia. Off the field, he won the Hendricks Award, which honors the nation’s top defensive end, and was a finalist for the Nagurski, Lombardi, and Bendnarik awards. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting and garnered four first-place votes. Since the end of the season, and especially since the Heisman was announced, many national writers are already promoting Clowney to win the nation’s top honor in 2013. Writers from Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, and more have already pushed the South Pointe product to become the first true defensive player to ever win the award.

Student-athletes like the ones below could all make a claim to be the top student-athlete but, given on- and off-the-field success, Clowney is a step above in 2012.

2. Michael Roth Not too far behind is Roth, who anchored the South Carolina pitching rotation and dugout-danced his teammates all the way back to the College World Series for the third straight season. While Roth was a model of consistency, even going back to his days as a left-handed relief specialist, he always performed at his best in big moments. He had a string of 28 batters set down in a row in Omaha this season. In his final appearance as a Gamecock, he allowed one run on three hits and struck out three in Game 2 against Arizona in the College World Series. Career CWS honors include eight starts, including three in championship series, all-time record for innings pitched (60.1), four wins, and a 1.49 earned run average.

This season alone, he pitched the Gamecocks to two victories (Florida and Kent State) in the College World Series, won against Oklahoma in the Super Regional, and allowed four runs in 13.2 innings in two starts against Clemson. Drafted in the ninth round by the Angels, Roth finished the year with a 9-1 record and 137.0 innings pitched. He posted a 2.43 ERA, struck out 93 hitters, and held opponents to a .209 batting average. He will leave the program as one of the best to ever play for the Garnet and Black, which isn’t too bad for someone who considered himself more of a hitter than a pitcher for most of his career.

3. Marcus Lattimore With the respect that he has across the nation, there is no one out there who wanted to see Lattimore’s career end the way it did. Even though he only played a little more than half of the season, even though the amount of games he played in three seasons only equaled just over two full years, the impact that Lattimore had on the South Carolina football program was immeasurable.

Despite only playing in nine games, Lattimore will finish the year as the team’s top rusher with 662 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 26 passes, which will finish at least top four on the team, for 173 yards. Lattimore finished his South Carolina career, which was made official earlier this month when he declared for the NFL Draft and hired an agent, with a school record 41 total touchdowns and 28 rushing touchdowns. He rushed for 2,677 yards, which places him sixth on the school’s all-time list. His on-field accomplishments were incredible but Lattimore is loved off of the field universally. Athletics director Ray Tanner described him as the “face of the athletics department” from a student-athlete standpoint.

4. Christian Walker: There have been fewer better performers in the clutch during my lifetime than Walker regardless of sport. During his career, he accomplished the improbable and pulled off the near impossible. When his team needed a big hit, he came through; when called upon to make a big defensive play, it was made. A fourth round draft pick by the Baltimore Orioles and All-American, Walker won the team Triple Crown in 2012 hitting .321 with 11 home runs and 55 RBIs. From his home run against Coastal Carolina in the Super Regional as a freshman to send the Gamecocks to the College World Series, to playing with a broken hand the next year, Walker leaves making a tremendous impact on the program. Every year he was at South Carolina, the team finished in Omaha and he leaves as one of the best all-around hitters and one of the most clutch performers the program has ever seen.

First baseman Christian Walker

5. Sabrina D’Angelo: Not many represent their university and their country on the field in the same week. D’Angelo, however, played on the U-20 Canadian National team and competed for the Gamecocks this season. A goalie, D’Angelo was the only South Carolina player to make the All-SEC team this year as she registered three shutouts in 14 games. D’Angelo, a sophomore, missed the first four matches of the season for USC as she played for the Canadian team in Korea. While abroad, she played in three matches, registered 16 saves, and registered a shutout in a 6-0 win against Argentina.

6. Bruce Ellington: Arguably South Carolina’s best all-around athlete on campus right now, Ellington starred for both the basketball and football team in 2012. He was the best player on the hoops squad last year averaging 11.0 points per game and totaled 74 assists and 16 steals. On the football field this year, one could easily argue he was the team’s best wide receiver catching 38 passes for 564 yards and six touchdowns. He also served as the team’s primary kickoff returner averaging 22.2 yards per return. He was a perfect 4-0 against Clemson during his career until the Gamecocks lost on the basketball court earlier this month but he’s made a big impression on the rivalry and was one of the best student-athletes on campus in 2012.

7. Michael Flach: After taking an Olympic redshirt year to focus on training for the London games, Flach made a strong statement nationally and came back to campus this academic year and picked up right where he left off. He was eighth in the 200-meter butterfly after becoming the first Gamecock to make the U.S. Swimming Trials since 1988. In late November, he was named both SEC and National Swimmer of the Week winning all three individual events - the 500 freestyle, 200 free, and 200 butterfly. Not only that, the times recorded in the 500 freestyle and 200 butterfly were the fastest in the nation this season. In September, Flach was named to the United States roster for the 2013 World University Games, which will take place in Kazan, Russia next July.

8. D.J. Swearinger: OK, let’s be real - Swearinger makes the list because he had one heck of a season but he’s vaulted all the way up to eighth because of one play. His hit and ensuing flex on Andre Ellington will be replayed in the eyes of South Carolina fans for a long time. He was a perfect 4-0 against Clemson during his career, which is a notable accomplishment, but also one he guaranteed before he ever set foot on the field in a Carolina uniform. This year, he is second on the team in tackles with 70, which includes 2.5 for a loss. He also had two interceptions, a pass breakup, two fumble recoveries, and a pair of touchdowns. Few can forget the fact he had three straight plays with personal foul penalties but all were forgiven after his pick-6 against Arkansas.

9. La’Keisha Sutton: A senior for the 2011-12 season, Sutton finished her career 16th in school history in points (1,299) and 12th in assists (357). A second-team All-SEC and All-Defensive Team selection by the league, she was the team’s top scorer 11 times and led the Gamecocks to a Sweet 16 berth in the NCAA Tournament. She played her best basketball when her team needed her the most sparking a second half run against Stanford in the tournament by hitting 6-of-10 shots in the second half. A Trenton, N.J. native, Sutton finished the year second on the team in scoring (10.6 ppg) and also had 46 steals and 97 assists. She played the most minutes, had the highest free throw percentage, and also added 2.8 rebounds per game from her guard position.

10. Matt NeSmith: Even though he’s only one semester into his South Carolina career, the Clowney of men’s golf is starting to make his mark. The No. 1 recruit in the country, NeSmith finished in the top 20 in three of the four events he competed in this season at the collegiate level. In November, he was named the Rolex Player of the Year in junior golf. He is the first player in AJGA history to win the Rolex Tournament of Champions and Polo Golf Junior Classic in the same season. This fall with the Gamecocks, he posted a scoring average of 74.33 and had a pair of top 10 performances.

11. Connor Shaw: With all of the big playmakers and big personalities on the team, Shaw is oftentimes overlooked. He’s fine with that and he’ll just continue to lead his team to wins. Shaw is 16-3 as a starter in his career, which includes two victories over Georgia and Tennessee and one over Florida and Clemson. This year, he’s completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 1,732 yards and 15 touchdowns. Those aren’t astounding numbers over 10 games, but he’s also the team’s third-leading rusher with 339 yards and three scores.

12. Katherine Schmidt: A freshman when this calendar year began, Schmidt has enjoyed a spectacular year on the equestrian team. She was the 2011-12 AgSouth Female Athlete of the Year at South Carolina with a 25-7 record and five MVP performances in Hunt Seat action. This fall, Schmidt has a 6-6 record but has put forth her best performances against top competition. Now a sophomore, Schmidt won both of her competitions against No. 5 Oklahoma State, took a match against No. 1 Georgia, No. 4 Texas A&M, and No. 8 Baylor. Schmidt led the team to the No. 1 ranking in the country to close out the fall season.

Senior tight end Justice Cunningham

13. Justice Cunningham: An overlooked piece of the 2009 recruiting class, Cunningham has been a four-year contributor for the Gamecocks and has saved his best season for his last on campus. Tough as nails, the Pageland native caught 22 passes for 287 yards this season but that doesn’t begin to describe him. He was Shaw’s go-to guy when in need of a big catch. His one-handed catch against Tennessee up the seam and his first-down reception and subsequent de-cleating hit from Vanderbilt’s Andre Hal will be replayed time and time again on end-of-season highlight reels.

14. Bradlee Baladez: Entering the 2012 season, Baladez was one of the top players in the country and he was a marked man for all opponents. After earning first-team all-conference last year and All-American honors as a freshman, Baladez had a quieter year this season for the Garnet and Black. Baladez had a team-high four goals on the season while also chipping in three assists. He knew how to score against big-time competition as all four goals came against ranked opponents. A junior, Baladez signed a professional contract recently with FC Dallas of Major League Soccer.

15. Matt Price: Roth was the team’s best player over the course of his career but Price is one of the most dominant closers the Gamecocks have ever had. There were moments that Price looked human this year, which was a new phenomenon, but he came through in the clutch time and time again. The right-hander finished the year with a 5-5 record and 3.48 earned run average but also had 13 saves and a .198 opponents batting average. Drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore Orioles, he holds the career school record in saves (43) and appearances (102). He also holds the SEC career record in saves. This year, Price picked up two saves and a victory in the College World Series.

16. Malik Cooke: It is almost unfair to Cooke, who finished his career at South Carolina on a bad basketball team. One of the most unheralded players in program history, Cooke did all the little things to put his team in a position to win but he also contributed in the stat column as well. He led the team in points with 12.3 a game, was second in rebounding averaging 4.7 per game, led in steals (51) and was second on the team in both blocks (23) and assists (52). Cooke did it all but he had very little help.

17. Lauren Lackey: The softball team is making strides under Beverly Smith and the team is improving thanks to players like Lackey, who was named a first-team All-SEC player thanks to her .401 batting average, good for second in the SEC. She is the first Gamecock to finish hitting better than .400 since 1999 and was the first Carolina player to earn an SEC postseason award since 2009.

18. Grayson Greiner: Overshadowed by some of the upperclassmen and even some of his fellow first-year players, Greiner was one of the most consistent players at a position that doesn’t produce a lot of great freshmen players. Greiner was named to the Freshman All-America team by Baseball American and was selected to play for the USA Baseball Collegiate National team. He played in 62 games and hit .222 with 13 doubles, six home runs, and 32 RBIs. While his numbers weren’t gaudy offensively, Greiner was a force behind the plate. He played nearly the entire regular season without a passed ball (finished with only two on the year) and threw out 18 runners, including all five against Arkansas in a series this year.

19. Anya Morgina: In her final season at South Carolina, Morgina was selected as a member of the All-SEC second-team and competed in the NCAA singles tournament to conclude the season. Playing in the No. 1 slot for much of the season, Morgina advanced to the second round of the tournament before being knocked out in the third of a best of three set match. Morgina, a right-handed player and native of Moscow, Russia, finished her career at South Carolina with an 82-40 singles record, 70-44 doubles record, and a Top 40 ranking nationally in singles competition.

20. Braeden Troyer: A sophomore making his second appearance on an All-Conference USA team, Troyer was the glue that held the midfield together. He has the ability to get forward in an attack but he’s known more for his ability on the defensive end. The Hammond product is the best the Gamecocks have at breaking up the play of the opposition and holding it for his team. Troyer scored three goals, all of which came in conference play, and earned second-team honors from CUSA.

Which athletes did we miss? Let us know your thoughts! Join us on the Palmetto Proving Grounds message board to talk about this story and everything else that is happening on Gamecock athletics!

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