North Carolina

The unheralded decisions that helped college baseball thrive at UNC, Duke, NC State

NC State's Will Wilson slides safely into home in victory over Duke

Watch a time-lapse of NC State's Will Wilson sliding safely into home after tagging up on a sacrifice fly in the victory over Duke Saturday, April 21, 2018. Wilson was originally called out but it was overturned on replay.
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Watch a time-lapse of NC State's Will Wilson sliding safely into home after tagging up on a sacrifice fly in the victory over Duke Saturday, April 21, 2018. Wilson was originally called out but it was overturned on replay.

Mike Fox was seated next to Dick Baddour as the North Carolina team bus rolled through the Omaha, Neb., streets en route to TD Ameritrade Park in 2006. Oregon State awaited as the Tar Heels opponent in the finals of the College World Series.

The head baseball coach and athletic director at the time had staged preliminary discussions about renovations to outdated Boshamer Stadium on the Chapel Hill campus.

“Now, tell me again why we need this new stadium?” Fox recalled Baddour asking.

“Because, we want to do this again,” Fox replied.

North Carolina head coach Mike Fox watches during UNC's 6-3 victory over Clemson in the ACC Baseball tournament at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on May 22, 2015. Ethan Hyman

Fox led UNC to the brink of a national championship the following season, again losing to Oregon State. Then Baddour agreed to a $25 million expansion and renovation project to Boshamer that was completed for the 2009 season.

Five years earlier, N.C. State allocated $6 million to the renovation of Doak Field, and in 2010 Duke reached an agreement with the Durham Bulls to make Durham Bulls Athletic Park its home field.

The ballpark renovations and alignments by the three programs signaled a landmark commitment to college baseball in the area. Now the results are beginning to come in. For the first time since Baseball America began its rankings in 1981, all three programs are nationally ranked in the same week. It has actually happened two consecutive weeks.

“It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?” said Chris Pollard, Duke’s sixth-year head coach, whose Blue Devils (31-10) are currently No. 12, but were No. 8 last week, the highest ranking in program history.

N.C. State (31-8) also has matched its highest ranking at No. 2, and UNC (27-13) is at No. 10. East Carolina (30-9) is ranked No. 7 and plays the Wolfpack Tuesday.

There is a strong chance all three Triangle programs will play in the NCAA tournament this season, again another first. East Carolina could be NCAA-bound, too.

“It’s good for baseball,” Fox said.

NC State coach Elliott Avent talks about playing at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the victory over UNC and the Wolfpack's upcoming games against Duke, North Carolina and ECU.

It is no secret that Duke was late arriving at the table. The Blue Devils had been ranked only three weeks in each of the 1994 and 1998 seasons by Baseball America, prior to its current six-week run. Before reaching the 2016 NCAA tournament, Duke’s only other postseason appearances came in 1952, 1953, 1956, 1957 and 1961.

"I always believed, going all the way back to when I came here to interview for the job, that this was a place that had something to sell,” Pollard said. “You’re selling ACC baseball and you’re selling that combination of being able to play that ACC baseball while pursuing one of the world’s best degrees. There would be a lot of talented players interested in that combination.”

Pollard sounded like just about every other Duke coach over the years. The difference is that Pollard had the backing of the athletic administration in helping to make Duke relevant in baseball.

That meant working out a deal to shift the majority of Duke’s home games from a suitable Jack Coombs Field on campus to a showcase environment in downtown Durham. In 2016, Duke and the Bulls reached a seven-year agreement that allows the Blue Devils to play up to 36 exhibition and regular-season games at DBAP. More importantly, a separate locker room and office space was added for Duke at the Triple-A, minor-league ballpark.

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Duke coach Chris Pollard during the team's game against UNCW in the NCAA Baseball Tournament regional Friday at Founders Park in Columbia. Dwayne McLemore

“It gives us a marque stadium to be able to play our home games, to be able to recruit,” Pollard said. “We have an office suite down there to host recruits, and a terrific locker room facility. We can make that truly the home of Duke baseball.

“It starts with a commitment from our administration, without question.”

That lack of commitment to baseball from the N.C. State administration played a part in Ray Tanner departing his alma mater following the 1996 season for South Carolina, where he would eventually win two College World Series.

Tanner’s successor, Elliott Avent has elevated the Wolfpack program after the Doak Field renovations, guiding N.C. State to 13 NCAA tournament appearances in the past 15 seasons including a College World Series showing in 2013.

Pinecrest senior pitcher Nik Pry, a North Carolina recruit, struck out 13 batters in an extra-innings game at Purnell Swett on March 23, 2017. Pry allowed one hit in the 2-0 victory in eight innings.

UNC has long pushed for success on the baseball diamond, all the way back to the 1960s under Walter Rabb’s direction. He led UNC to College World Series appearances in 1960 and 1966. Mike Roberts followed with nine NCAA tournament appearances that ended in the College World Series in 1978 and 1989.

In Fox’s 20 seasons, UNC has played in the NCAA tournament 16 times. The Tar Heels have had a remarkable run of College World Series appearances in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Now, all three programs are competing at the national level.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Fox said. “I don’t think I’ve seen it in my time at UNC that all three schools have put together a season like this to this point.”