Luke DeCock

Duke savors end to 55 years of baseball frustration

Duke's Kellen Urbon pitches during their game against Campbell on February 23, 2016.
Duke's Kellen Urbon pitches during their game against Campbell on February 23, 2016.

With his back no longer against the proverbial wall, Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard had his back against an actual wall, above center field at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. His team was still celebrating its first NCAA tournament bid since 1961 inside Tobacco Road Sports Cafe. Pollard, who had steered Duke over that generational hurdle in his fourth season, could finally relax.

“I pictured a moment like this,” Pollard said Monday. “It’s something we’ve worked for. Something when you’re struggling, something when you’re spending the hours out on the road recruiting, something when you’re having those midseason struggles, you think back to because you know you’re working and grinding toward a point like this. It was never a matter of if. It was a matter of when.”

Ace Parker was the coach and John F. Kennedy the president the last time Duke made the tournament. The Blue Devils are headed to South Carolina as the No. 3 seed in the Columbia, S.C., regional, where they’ll face NCAA basketball tournament opponent UNC-Wilmington in the opening game Friday.

Duke, which won 21 of its final 29 games including series wins over ACC finalists Florida State and Clemson, was swept along by the ACC wave as the conference got a record 10 teams into the field – including Wake Forest and Boston College but not North Carolina, which missed the tournament for the second straight season.

“It’s obviously pure joy, a great feeling,” fifth-year senior Trent Swart said. “It’s the goal of every college baseball player. I know when I chose Duke it had been a while since we had been in the tournament. My class came in and wanted to change that.”

Pollard arrived from Appalachian State in 2013 and has benefited from the eight major-league draft picks he inherited – the members of his first full recruiting class will go into the draft this year as juniors – and this season’s hired guns from Cornell, graduate transfers and rotation starters Brian McAfee and Kellen Urbon. But that severely undersells the depth of talent he has recruited to Duke.

The Blue Devils posted their third straight 30-win season for the first time in a decade, but what probably would have been a slam dunk had Duke won a game or two at the ACC tournament became a long, anxious week when the Blue Devils lost a play-in game to Wake Forest on Tuesday.

So five long days of waiting gave way to more waiting when ESPN made it through the first half of the tournament field without calling Duke’s name, then broke for a commercial. Wake Forest was in. Georgia Tech was in. Duke and Boston College and North Carolina were not. A few players got up to use the bathroom, to move around as much as anything. Others stared at their phones like zombies. Pollard paced, rubbed his chin and stared absently into center field at the DBAP.

When the show resumed, the Blue Devils didn’t have long to wait. The Vanderbilt regional went past, to grumbles and groans. Columbia was third and one of only a few potential destinations remaining for ACC teams. The explosion when Duke popped up as the No. 3 seed was exactly what you’d expect from a group that just changed more than five decades of school history.

The cheering was still bubbling along at a low murmur when Boston College made it in, which meant North Carolina was out. More cheers greeted the graphic that showed the Tar Heels as the first team out, although rivalry quickly moderated into sympathy.

“They were No. 19 in RPI and didn’t make it in. That’s tough,” said McAfee, Friday’s scheduled starter. “We’ve got to root against them, but at the same time we feel for them.”

North Carolina has missed the tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-97. That isn’t much compared to missing it in back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back seasons.

Five days of anxiety was nothing compared to 55 years of waiting.

Luke DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock

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