Duke's baseball team returns home to cheering fans
Chris Proctor stood on second base after rocketing a ball off the base of the center field wall at Foley Field. He proudly glared at his teammates in the Duke dugout and pantomimed a jackhammer motion.
No sooner had Proctor finished the team ritual for hitting a double then he watched the next pitch to Zack Kone sail deep over the left-field wall for a three-run homer. After Kone touched home plate, he was serenaded near the dugout with the wearing of a construction hard hat. Five pitchers later, Kone passed the hard hat to teammate Griffin Conine, who deposited a home run atop the scoreboard in right-center field.
Duke suddenly had a three-run lead en route to an 8-4 championship game victory Monday over Georgia in the NCAA tournament Athens Regional. With the title comes a ticket to the super regionals this weekend at Texas Tech.
Duke has been in the same blue-collar “build the brick wall” mode all season, one that is reflective of the construction project undergone by Chris Pollard in his six seasons as the Blue Devils head coach.
Pollard was warned in 2012 about taking a job at Duke, where interest in the baseball program over the years has waffled between passing and non-existent. Quite frankly, the same disinterest was often shown from Duke’s athletic administration.
“I had several respected baseball people tell me when I took this job that it was a mistake,” Pollard said, “and I should have stayed at Appalachian (State).”
Pollard carried with him to Duke a reputation for building programs from the ground up. He did so in five seasons at Division II Pfeiffer where the Falcons went from 20-28 in his first year to 41-14 and Carolinas Conference champs his last year. At Appalachian State, Pollard’s first team won 10 of 52 games, and his eighth and last team went 41-18 with a Southern Conference regular-season title.
“We felt strongly we had a good product to sell in Duke University, and the fact that we competed in the ACC,” Pollard said. “We didn’t have tradition or the facilities.”
Following the 2015 season, Duke upgraded its facilities by signing a seven-year agreement with the Durham Bulls to play 36 exhibition and home games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The agreement included a new locker room and clubhouse facility at the ballpark for the Blue Devils.
As for Duke’s baseball tradition, almost all of its success occurred even before Pollard was born. The Blue Devils played in the NCAA tournament in 1952, ’53, ’56, ’57 and ’61, reaching the College World Series in ’52, ’53 and ’61.
So, when Duke defeated Campbell in the losers’ bracket on Saturday in Athens, Pollard gathered his team on the field for a moment of reflection.
“I wanted our guys to enjoy that and the historical significance of that,” Pollard said of Duke’s first NCAA tournament win in 57 years. To gain some perspective, consider that in 1961 Vic Bubas was the second-year men’s basketball coach for a Blue Devil program still without a Final Four appearance. Duke University was still two years away from having an integrated student population and faculty.
More bricks were added this year. The Blue Devils competed for the ACC’s regular-season title, finishing second in the Coastal Division with an 18-11 league mark that was fourth-best overall. Duke’s 44 wins are a program high.
At one point, Duke climbed to No. 8 in the Baseball America poll, the highest ranking ever for the program. The Blue Devils were nationally ranked for 13 consecutive weeks, compared to six weeks of ranking previously in the 36 years of the Baseball America poll.
Realistically, the next step this season was probably for Duke to merely get over the NCAA tournament win hurdle. Yet the Blue Devils produced four consecutive come-from-behind wins to come out of the losers’ bracket and win the Athens Regional.
Now Duke players will continue to pantomime using a jackhammer and will pass around the hard hat as the program’s construction project continues in the Lubbock Super Regional, and perhaps beyond.