Moment In The Sun

It projects to be one of the most hotly-contested games in the NCAA super regional round: North Carolina against East Carolina in a three-game series with a trip to Omaha on the line.

But more than even that, the Chapel Hill super regional solidifies the of the state of North Carolina’s status as an emerging baseball hotbed.

Think about it—two schools separated by a mere 110 miles, just a two hour drive—are playing for a berth in the College World Series. It will be the first time that two schools from the Old North State will meet in a super regional.

And nowhere is the growth more apparent than Chapel Hill, N.C. UNC’s newly-renovated Boshamer stadium is one of the best in the nation, smelling like $25.5 million and draped with banners reading “College World Series: 2006, 2007, 2008.” Should UNC down the Pirates, it would be the fourth straight year the Tar Heels have been to Omaha for the CWS.

But the Tar Heels are just the tip of the iceberg, albeit a highly visible one. East Carolina also sports an $11 million new stadium after two straight trips to the NCAA tournament.

Each year since 2005, six schools from North Carolina have made the NCAA tournament. In 2008, North Carolina State, North Carolina, Elon, UNC Wilmington, Charlotte, and East Carolina all received berths.

Fan support is at an all-time high for baseball. The 2009 ACC tournament, held at Durham Athletic Park—home of the Triple-A Durham Bulls—brought 6,956 fans out. That number broke the state college baseball attendance record. North Carolina is reporting that the Chapel Hill super regional is already sold out.

Even through Division II, North Carolina Schools are making their mark. Last year, Mount Olive College from Cary, N.C. won the D-II national championship, and in the 2009 event,—held in Cary, N.C., at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex—Belmont Abbey (from Belmont, N.C.) was one of the last three teams left.

So how did North Carolina get here, with two elite programs playing in a shiny new stadium for a chance to represent the state at collegiate baseball’s highest stage?

In 1959, Russ Frazier became the head coach of Louisburg Junior College, in Louisburg, N.C., a  small country town smack between Henderson and Raleigh. For the next 40 years, Frazier built Louisburg into a JuCo powerhouse—80 of his players went on to sign with MLB teams, and 12 played in the big leagues.

Frazier made his program by drawing almost completely on the local talent base. Most of his recruiting trips were to places like nearby Raleigh and Rocky Mount.

“Baseball was good then,” Frazier said of those days. “It was like you might say pockets of it, there would be good coaches at certain schools.”

For the time, Louisberg had one of the nicest facilities in JuCo—a 700-seat stadium that has borne  Frazier’s name since 1977. (It even got an air-conditioned press box in 2000).

Frazier believes that the growth of baseball in North Carolina is best reflected not in college teams, nor in the number of draft picks the state produces (an all-time high 69 in 2008) but in the state’s high school coaches—and that’s something that Frazier (and other longtime coaches such as UNC’s late Walter Rabb) can claim some credit for. Many of the local players who played under great coaches like Frazier and Rabb returned to N.C. In following years, coaching and teaching the game of baseball.

“[Baseball has] grown tremendously; I think due to a lot better coaching,” Frazier said. “It used to be that I didn’t think the coaching wasn’t all that great in some of the high schools, but now I think it’s so much better.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by coaches around the state, like UNC Wilmington’s Mark Scalfe, a Cary native.

“It’s just a large number of quality coaches . . . that are teaching the game and working hard to recruit the best players, and tremendously competitive schedules throughout the course of the  year,” Scalfe said.

So it’s fitting that the two head coaches squaring of this weekend both started coaching in N.C. high schools.

In fact, North Carolina’s Mikc Fox and ECU’s Billy Godwin embody the growth of baseball in the state. Both played in college  (Fox at UNC from 1976-78, Godwin at Atlantic Christian from 1982-86). Both came back to UNC to coach and teach (Fox at Millbrook High in Raleigh before moving to Division III N.C. Wesleyan; Godwin coached at Cary Academy before succeeding Frazier at Louisberg). And both now have developed their programs with mostly home-grown talent. Each team roster features more than 20 players from the state.

“You go down the rosters of the two teams, you’re going to see a lot of North Carolina kids on there,” Fox said. “Me and Billy, neither one, I certainly don’t, at the end of the day care what state our kids are from, but when you start talking about North Carolina and the number of players this state has produced, and the quality of them, you can’t help but look and see.”

And with the success of not only the Pirates and the Tar Heels but all of the 18 Division I schools in the state, North Carolina schools started pumping money into baseball—newer and better facilities, renewed commitment to the diamond.

“I don’t know per capita, but we’ve got a ton of Division I programs in this state, and all the coaches get after it,” Fox said. “I think it makes all of us better. I know it does here. We can never relax, because there’s always people out there trying to beat you.”

And so now, at Boshamer Stadium, the two elite programs in North Carolina will square off in front of ESPN cameras and pro scouts and a sold-out stadium, a world away from 700-seat Frazier field just up the road.

“Looking at it externally, it’s huge,” Godwin said. “For North Carolina to continue the success they’ve had, and for us to get to where they’ve been.”