Junior right-handed pitcher Tyson Messer almost played baseball at N.C. State. A last-minute change of heart landed Messer at Campbell University, a mere five miles from his hometown of Lillington.
“I kind of like it in Harnett County,” Messer said Thursday following Campbell’s workout at Georgia’s Foley Field Stadium. “I’ve lived there all my life and it’s where I like to hang out.”
Messer and his team-leading eight saves will be counted on as Campbell opens play Friday against top-seeded Georgia in the NCAA tournament Athens regional.
Messer is representative of the Campbell player who head coach Justin Haire has kept close to home in building a program that will make its second NCAA tournament appearance in the past five seasons.
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Haire said it is all about players having a chance to play baseball in front of their friends and family and being able to “go home on a Sunday night and maybe get Mom’s cooking.”
The heart of Campbell’s Big South Conference regular-season and tournament championship team is local products. In addition to Messe attended Harnett Central High School, sophomore outfielder Matthew Barefoot hails from Midway High in Dunn and freshman right-handed pitcher Logan Bender attended Triton High in Dunn.
Barefoot leads Campbell in 11 offensive categories, including a .357 batting average and a Big South-leading 31 stolen bases. He was the MVP of the Big South tournament where he batted .526 with five doubles and seven runs scored in five games. He was a first-team Big South player.
Barefoot entertained offers from UNC and UNC Wilmington out of high school, but those and other schools were primarily interested in him as a pitcher. When Campbell said it would give him an opportunity to pitch and play outfield, he was sold on being a Camel. He has pitched in 14 games this season, three as a starter and has two saves.
Bender was the Big South freshman of the year due largely to a 5-1 record that included three saves and 61 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings. He was a first-time all-Big South performer.
Haire has been able to keep players close to home thanks in part to a 2009 NCAA rule change regarding rosters and to a $6 million upgrade in baseball facilities at Campbell.
The rule limits rosters to 35 players, meaning teams from Power 5 conferences can no longer stockpile players.
“It’s provided us a more level playing ground where the big name-brand schools aren’t scooping up 50 or 60 guys and having a tryout camp in the fall as much as they used to,” Haire said of the roster change in 2009. “That’s been a big help for us.”
The upgrade in facilities came when the Houston Astros placed their high Class A franchise in the Carolina League last season and this season until a new stadium is completed in Fayetteville. With a new artificial playing surface, a big-screen video board, new baseball offices, clubhouses and dugouts, Campbell no longer plays its home games on what essentially was a glorified high school field.
“It puts us in the conversation for a lot of good players,” Haire said. “We certainly don’t lose guys because of facilities anymore.”
Haire also has honed relationships with high school coaches in Harnett and surrounding counties. With the help of those coaches, Haire has begun to identify the better area players at a younger age in hopes of building a feeder system for Campbell.
As a result, players like Barefoot are more inclined to play for the hometown team in college. Barefoot’s parents, Carla and Wesley, have not missed one of their son’s home games this season, and have traveled for all but three or four road games.
The other bonus in playing for Campbell is that Barefoot continues to enjoy Mom’s cooking.