The Buies Creek Astros opened their first season on Thursday on unusual terms. The single-A baseball club, formerly the Bakersfield Blaze, left California this summer for a temporary home in Jim Perry Stadium on the campus of Campbell University while a new home in Fayetteville is being constructed.
It’s Fayetteville’s franchise, but for the next two years Harnett County gets to host the team. The two-year arrangement is a perfect fit in the county’s quirky sports history.
What Harnett County lacks in homegrown Hall of Famers or professional franchises, it makes up for it with an non-replicable hodgepodge of back stories.
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Harnett County has an NFL Pro Bowler to call its own, but Eric Swann’s path to the NFL is unlike any other that has come through the league.
Swann, who hails from the tiny Swann Station community, took a detour after not qualifying at N.C. State. So he went from Western Harnett High School to Wake Tech to a semipro football team in Massachusetts to the sixth pick overall in the 1991 NFL Draft. He is the only first-round pick to have not played college football.
The second-most famous athlete from Harnett County might be April Coble Eller, a world-renowned water skier.
She is a 26-time U.S. national champion and two-time water ski athlete of the year, and her family now operates one of the few water ski schools on the East Coast just south of Lillington.
The most famous game in county history set a record that may never be broken.
On Feb. 29, 1964 Boone Trail, located in the Mamers community west of Lillington, defeated Angier 56-54 to claim the Harnett County championship in Campbell’s Carter Gymnasium.
Angier and Boone Trail High (both are now the site of elementary schools) played 13 overtimes, the longest game in world history. The game started around 8:30 p.m. and finished just before midnight.
There were no substitutions for either side. It would hard enough to imagine a game today that didn’t have a substitution, much less none across 13 overtimes.
Carter Gymnasium is no longer the home of Campbell’s basketball teams, but when it did, it had the distinction of being the second-smallest Division I college gym.
Only 947 people could squeeze into the confines that housed the likes of John Wooden and Michael Jordan when they came during the summer to help run the Campbell Basketball Camp.
The Camels, the only Division I college to use that nickname, have an MLB Hall of Famer to call their own: the colorful Gaylord Perry, a player who got into the heads of batters for sometimes doctoring – and sometimes bluffing that he was – baseballs.
Harnett County once hosted a NASCAR race, and a Harnett native won it.
Back in the dirt track days, NASCAR took a one-time visit to the half-mile Harnett Speedway on March 8, 1953 and Herb Thomas took first along with the $1,000 prize.
Thomas, from Olivia, led all 200 laps, according to ESPN records. It was one of 48 races he won, which is 14th all-time.
NASCAR never returned, and eventually the local races discontinued. The concrete stands are still there, tucked away on private property under longleaf pines and only accessible off a long dirt road in Anderson Creek.
Donald Ross golf
Also gone by the wayside is an original Donald Ross golf course.
Ross, the architect of the Pinehurst No. 2 course that draws the U.S. Open, also had an 18-hole, par-71 course on the Rockefeller family’s former Overhills estate.
The intention was that it would become part of a bigger resort, but the course was never opened to the public. Later, the Overhills estate was sold to Fort Bragg, and now the course sits on federal land in isolation of everything but vegetative overgrowth.
In a few years, after the team has rebranded to something else and playing in Fayetteville, the locals will talk about the days Harnett County had players like Kyle Tucker playing in their own backyard. A few years later, someone will wonder why the MiLB came here in the first place.
It’ll be another odd story in a county that’s gotten good at pulling them together.