Joey Roach remembers moving to Holly Springs in 1999, when the town, as he recalls it, had two stoplights and a gas station on each end. It had about 9,000 residents.
On Thursday night, Roach hit a home run for the booming town’s first baseball franchise in front of more than 1,800 fans. It was the first home game for the Holly Springs Salamanders, a collegiate summer wood-bat league team in the Coastal Plain League.
“It’s always fun to come home. The community’s been really excited and I just wanted to be a part of it,” Roach said. “The buzz around Holly Springs has been unbelievable. Everybody’s been talking about the Salamanders. ... It’s weird, every time I come home there’s something new in Holly Springs. It’s just growing so fast.”
Holly Springs, which now has more than 30,000 residents and grown by 21.1 percent since 2010, entered a new era of sports when the PA announcer said “Play ball!”
The growth of Holly Springs earned it the title “fastest growing town in North Carolina” in the 1990s. It jumped from about 900 residents in 1992 to about 6,000 in 1998.
“A town this size that has a stadium like this, we’re pretty proud of that,” Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said. “When you start getting emails from parents saying ‘My kids can’t wait to get to the first game’ or second game, that puts it all into perspective.”
Thursday night, the Salamanders moved to 2-1 on the season with a thrilling 7-6 walk-off win against the Edenton Steamers. Holly Springs scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth, including a game-winning RBI single by Nick Hernandez.
The team has a local flair.
Players from Millbrook, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Athens Drive and Cardinal Gibbons high schools are on the team. Panther Creek High graduate Thomas Young caught the ceremonial first pitch thrown by Sears.
Mike Sconzo, a former high school teammate of Roach’s at Holly Springs, started at second base, drove in the Salamanders’ third run and scored on the walk-off hit.
Another Holly Springs High product, Andy Wantz, got the nod as the starting pitcher. That was by design, said coach Andrew Ciencin, a former third baseman at N.C. State. He made sure Wantz, who plays at UNC-Greensboro now, got the ball.
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking, probably the most nervous I’ve been all year just because a lot of people know me and expect big things,” said Wantz, who pitched 52/3 innings with five strikeouts and two runs allowed. “It’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of.”
Athens Drive graduate Chris Williams, an N.C. State player, pitched a third of an inning in relief.
The entire playing surface, except for the pitcher’s mound, is made of FieldTurf, but it didn’t seem to affect the game.
The Salamanders had never stepped foot on the field before Thursday’s game. Like most collegiate summer league teams, they practiced for the first time together on Sunday. The roster is in flux as players join the team when their respective college seasons end.
“The first two weeks of the season – you never know who you’re going to get, what’s going to show up,” Ciencin said. “We’re just still trying to piece it together, but we’ve got a good set of guys.”
Construction is not yet done at the North Main Athletic Complex, which includes the baseball stadium, soccer fields and tennis courts. Winter weather delayed some of the construction.
A towering mound of dirt behind the stadium will be moved at a later date. Pipes, wires and table saws lay next to the walkway from the parking lot to the stadium.
The video scoreboard worked all game until going out in final inning, when the Salmanders made their rally.
But team officials are optimistic about the changes that are coming soon, such as more offices, bathrooms and a beer garden.
“We’re not quite ready, but we’re close enough to play and be here,” said co-owner Jerry Pettit, who like co-owner Pete Bock is a founder of the CPL.
The new team is drawing interest. Up to 25 fans watched parts of the game from the North Main Street sidewalk well beyond right field. As the lead got away from the home team in the latter innings, a “SAL-A-MAN-DERS” chant broke out in the stands to help the team rally. Win or lose, the Wake County suburb has its hometown team.
“I just hope it stays like this all season,” Ciencin said.