When North Carolina plays its first game of the College World Series against Oregon State on Saturday, it will likely face its ace, Luke Heimlich, who with a 16-1 record and a 2.32 earned run average, is arguably the best pitcher in college baseball.
But he's also controversial. Heimlich pleaded guilty to sexually molesting his six-year-old niece when he was 15. In recent interviews with the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, he has denied molesting the young girl.
The story was first reported by the Oregonian last year when the sheriff's office in Benton County, Oregon, discovered that Heimlich, who was a registered sex offender there, had let his registration lapse. That put his case in court records for the first time, according to the Oregonian.
The incident Heimlich pleaded guilty to happened in 2011 in Washington state, outside of Seattle.
Court documents show that the girl told investigators that Heimlich took her in his room, pulled down her pants and touched her inappropriately, according to the Oregonian. The report also said she told him to stop but he wouldn't.
Prosecutors had initially charged Heimlich with two counts of molestation from incidents between 2009 and 2010, and between September 2011 to December 2011, according to the Oregonian. But he ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of molestation between February 2011 and December 2011.
"I admit that I had sexual contact" with the girl, Heimlich wrote in his guilty plea, according to the Oregonian.
In 2012, Heimlich received two years of probation, took court ordered classes and had to register as a Level 1 sex offender for five years. He is no longer registered as a sex offender.
The Oregonian revealed the conviction in June 2017 when Oregon State advanced to the College World Series. Heimlich left the team after the story was published.
After the season, Oregon State's president said he would support Heimlich if he decided to return to the team the following year. Many on Oregon State's campus protested the school's decision to allow him to play.
"At Oregon State University, we are in the business of transforming lives and creating opportunity for each student," Oregon State president Ed Ray said in a statement last year. "I have always believed that education is a path to a more meaningful, responsible and productive life for everyone. I believe that every individual should have the opportunity to get an education."
"While at OSU, Luke has been in good academic standing, his participation as a student-athlete has been positive, and his presence on the team has been in compliance with existing OSU policies.”
The News & Observer reached out to Oregon State's Sports Information Department Wednesday morning to request an interview with Heimlich. A spokesperson said that player availability had ended for Oregon State, and they would have NCAA media availability on Friday.
In recent interviews with the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, Heimlich denied he touched his niece.
"I always denied anything ever happened," he told the Times in a story published in May. "Even after I pled guilty, which was a decision me and my parents thought was the best option to move forward as a family, and after that, even when I was going through counseling and treatment, I maintained my innocence the whole time."
Heimlich told Sports Illustrated that he pleaded guilty because it was "basically a he-said/she-said."
"In the court of law we didn't really think I stood a fair chance; that was the advice we had been given," he told SI. "So we thought that pleading guilty was going to give me the best chance at a normal life, and our family a best chance at reconnecting and being able to just kind of move past this whole event."
The left-handed pitcher has succeeded on the baseball diamond. Along with his 16 wins, he has struck out 139 batters, which ranks sixth in the country. In the two games he pitched so far in the NCAA tournament, he has pitched 15.2 innings, and has given up only two runs. He went 2-0 and struck out 12 batters.
Still, Heimlich, 22, and now a senior, was not drafted in last week's Major League Baseball draft. He was projected in mock drafts to be a first-round pick.
Much of the talk in the College World Series surrounding Oregon State will be around Heimlich and his past.
When asked about how he approaches that with his team, UNC coach Mike Fox said Heimlich is a "very, very good" pitcher.
"We've faced some really good left handed pitchers, throughout the course of the season, so I'm hoping that experience will help us some," Fox said. "But we're going to need to be ready for a pitcher who is really good, and has got a wipe out breaking ball. It will be a great challenge for us, if we face him."