Riley Zayicek (Photo by Brian Westerholt)
CHARLOTTE—As one of the two high school hitters in the Triple-A Home Run Derby, one could understand Riley Zayicek being nervous.
But Zayicek, who graduated from Lake Norman High in nearby Mooresville, N.C., had a bigger concern: getting back to class on time.
"I've got an 8 a.m. tomorrow," Zayicek said with a laugh.
Zayicek is taking summer classes at UNC Wilmington but got to skip class and drove more than 200 miles last Monday to participate in the festivities in Charlotte. He was able to participate after being one of the two best home run hitters in a qualifying event at BB&T Ballpark in May.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound lefthanded hitter put on a solid showing against the Triple-A sluggers, hitting six home runs in the first round. It would be the only round for him, though, as he needed one more homer to tie for fourth place and advance to the next round.
"I was expecting about six, but it just wasn't enough at the end of the day," Zayicek said. "I hit two that went foul that, if they were fair, I'm in the next round. It was a good experience, but it was about what I was expecting."
Zayicek was the only lefty to hit in the Charlotte derby, but supplied the fans with multiple souvenirs in his lone round, hitting multiple home runs off the facing off BB&T Ballpark’s “Home Run Porch” in right field. Zayicek was calm and relaxed at the plate, displaying a poise that UNCW associate head coach Randy Hood noticed when he was recruiting Zayicek.
"If you've been around him, he's got a good confidence about himself," Hood said. "I'm not that surprised that he can walk in there and do it in a Triple-A ballpark in front of all those people."
Hood said Zayicek's power potential stood out in his two seasons on Lake Norman's varsity team, where Zayicek broke the home run and RBIs records. While some pro scouts talked to Zayicek, he was not drafted this year, clearing the way for him to head to Wilmington and fight for playing time.
"We saw the raw power, the ability to square a lot of baseballs up in the games that we saw him play and the ability that, we feel like, he can make some adjustments and be a pretty good hitter when it's all said and done," Hood said.
And Zayicek gets to stay in-state, with a team he feels is "one of the best" in North Carolina. But when he looks an hour south of Wilmington, he sees a lot of similarities between the 2017 Seahawks and this year's national champion, Coastal Carolina.
"That could be us next year," Zayicek said. "I was recruited by Coastal, and you look at them, all of their guys were seniors. At Wilmington this year, all of our guys are going to be juniors or seniors. There's not many opportunities open to start, but we have a lot of senior leadership and older guys on the team that we can go to Omaha with. Once you get to Omaha, it's just about playing your cards right."
That mindset—as well as the composure and confidence he displayed in Charlotte last week—is exactly what Hood and the UNC Wilmington coaches want from their players.
"We hope guys that we get are capable of handling those type of situations, because that's where we want to be at—in front of big crowds, playing in important games," Hood said. "Riley's confident in himself, and that was something he was looking forward to. He did well for himself, and represented us well as well."
Well enough to miss class for a day, even. But Zayicek pointed out that the fact that he did not bring a trophy back to Wilmington surely led to some chirping from teammates and coaches once he got back.
"I missed class and I didn't win it—I don't know if our head coach will say anything, but our strength coach will definitely let me hear it. I'm not looking forward to that," Zayicek said, then laughed.