Mid-Major Success Story Campbell Has Earned Opportunity To Dream Big

Image credit: Cade Kuehler (Courtesy Campbell)

Justin Haire was in the final year of his initial contract after being promoted to head coach at Campbell when he sat down in the office of athletic director Bob Roller. It was late in 2017, with Opening Day still more than two months away—the perfect time to think and talk about big picture planning.

Haire had taken over the program following the 2014 season, promoted when Greg Goff left to take over at Louisiana Tech. In his three seasons, the Camels had been a middle of the pack team in the Big South Conference and were coming off a 25-32 season, their worst since 2011. Campbell had been to just one regional in more than 20 years (in 2014), but Roller was thinking big.

Roller, who has since moved into non-profits, explained he wanted to make Campbell a mid-major power like Louisiana-Lafayette, Haire said. The Ragin’ Cajuns in 2014 ranked No. 1 in the Top 25 and in 2017 opened the newly renovated Russo Park, one of the best stadiums for a program their size.

Haire was caught somewhat off guard by his boss.

“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Maybe my vision is smaller than his, I need to be thinking bigger, projecting out further,’ ” Haire said.

Campbell in 2018 won the Big South, advanced to regionals and Haire got a contract extension. The Camels haven’t looked back since. They’ve now been to four straight NCAA Tournaments, last year produced their first first-round pick in shortstop Zach Neto (now the first player from the 2022 draft to reach the major leagues) and this year have surged in the Top 25 to their first ever top-10 ranking, reaching No. 10. 

As the season moves into the second half, the Camels have earned the opportunity to dream big. They’re led by an offense that ranks second nationally in scoring (10.1 runs per game) and a pitching staff anchored by righthander Cade Kuehler, a Preseason All-American and a potential first-round pick. They’ve done a good job building out Jim Perry Stadium over the last decade and now have a chance to host regionals. 

There’s still a long way to go but Campbell has developed into one of college baseball’s mid-major success stories and an example of what can happen in the sport with the right combination of people and investment.

“One of the funnest parts of being at Campbell is from the day I walked on campus 16 years ago is we’ve been able to build and grow this thing into whatever monster we’ve been able to think up,” Haire said.

The Camels are having a lot of fun this spring. With a veteran, talented roster, they got off to a fast start to the season and won a series against Rutgers and beat East Carolina in an extra-innings thriller in the first week of the season. They haven’t slowed down since.

Campbell has one of the most exciting offenses in the country. Not only do the Camels rank third in the country in scoring, they’re also top 10 in slugging percentage (fourth, .578) and stolen bases (seventh, 95). Fourth-year junior outfielder Lawson Harrill is the team’s leading hitter at .383/.507/.730 with 10 home runs, with fifth-year players Jarrod Belbin (.364/.484/.755, 13 HR, 18 SB) and Tyler Halstead (.375/.488/.537, 26 SB) right behind him. 

The Camels are outperforming their 2022 team, which averaged 8.72 runs per game—and effectively had a big leaguer playing shortstop. That Campbell could lose Neto, who was called up by the Angels just nine months after they made him the 13th overall pick of the draft, and take a step forward offensively is incredible. 

They key has been the experience of this year’s lineup. Seven of the Camels’ regulars are returners from last year’s team. Harrill also said it was important that assistant coach Joey Holcomb is in his second season with Campbell after joining the program in August 2021. Last season, the Camels lost six of their first seven games and didn’t really kick into gear offensively until the second half. This season, with the players and coaches all more comfortable with each other and the offensive system they’re playing, the Camels’ offense was ready to go from Opening Day.

“Last year, it was about us learning how to play in the offense and what (Holcomb) was talking about,” Harrill said. “After him being in the program for a year, we really understood what our approach needed to be in the box and trusted it so much more.”

While Campbell’s raw numbers are better without Neto, his absence is still felt in the lineup. He brought an X-factor to the lineup and always seemed to make something happen in clutch moments. The Camels are still looking for someone who can bring that kind of presence. Otherwise, they have a little of everything, from power hitters to speedsters to table setters.

The Campbell pitching staff had an early look at the lineup’s prowess during the preseason. After taking it on the chin in scrimmages, they’re now the beneficiaries of it this spring.

“I expected nothing less after having to throw to them in the fall and spring,” Kuehler said. “They did it to me and most of our staff. It’s great knowing I can go out and give up a run or two and they’ll get it back.”

Campbell’s pitching staff is plenty talented in its own right. Kuehler spent the summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team (another program first) and this season has moved to the front of the rotation to replace Thomas Harrington, who last year was drafted No. 36 overall. He can run his fastball into the upper 90s and pairs it with a powerful slider. He has a full arsenal, however, throwing as many as four offspeed pitches to keep hitters off balance. He’s 7-0, 2.60 with 73 strikeouts and 17 walks in 52 innings. 

Haire said as good as Kuehler’s raw stuff is, his ability goes far beyond those measurables. 

“He’s a rock-solid balance point for our staff, where, like Neto last year, when it comes back around to Cade you know you’re going to be in the fight, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Haire said. “You could be playing the No. 1 team in the country; you could be playing No. 300. He’s going to go out there and give you his best stuff and be an ultimate competitor.”

Righthander Chance Daquila (7-1, 5.60) has been a consistent partner to Kuehler in the rotation. The Camels bullpen runs deep with Cade Boxrucker (1-1, 3.92), Ty Cummings (1-1, 4.39) and Aaron Rund (2-0, 3.18, 4 SV) all ready to chip in.

The whole roster has made the Camels a difficult matchup all season long and figures to make them a tough out in the postseason. Campbell could be even tougher if it hosts a regional for the first time ever, as it is 13-2 at Jim Perry Stadium. But it faces an uphill battle to get home-field advantage in the NCAA Tournament. While Coastal Carolina won the 2016 NCAA Tournament as a member of the Big South, it is not a strong league this year. Campbell and South Carolina-Upstate are the only teams in the conference in the top 100 of RPI, the most important metric used by the NCAA selection committee. As a result, nearly any loss in Big South play for Campbell sets it back significantly as it tries to earn one of 16 hosting spots.

While that’s bad news for this year’s Camels, they’re making progress even in that area. This is Campbell’s last season in the Big South before joining the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA is a deeper conference with strong baseball programs like College of Charleston, Northeastern, Stony Brook and UNC Wilmington, and should provide the Camels with a better platform for their postseason aspirations.


For now, however, the Camels can’t worry about any of that. They’re focused on taking care of what they can control and continuing to build on their strong start to the season into the second half.

“We’re putting it all together,” Kuehler said. “I don’t think we’ve played a completely executed baseball game on all fronts. There’s been something to improve on in all our wins. It would be really fun to watch if we do.”

Fun in the Campbell dugout, at least. Opponents are already having enough trouble keeping up with the Camels. 

It’s just the latest in the program’s remarkable rise. When Haire arrived at Campbell in the summer of 2007, newly hired as an assistant coach, they were coming off their sixth straight losing season and had made the NCAA Tournament just once in program history, in 1990. Haire had come from Ouchita Baptist (Ark.), a Division II program, and was just happy the stadium had lights.

Campbell has come a long way in the last 16 years—even in the last six years since Kuehler was being recruited. He committed before the program’s run of four straight regionals began in 2018 and said by the time he got to campus in the fall of 2020 the vibe inside the program had already changed from one of possibility to one of expectation.

“From the day I got on campus, I knew we’re here to win and win a lot,” he said.

The Camels have done a lot of that already this season. Now, the challenge is to carry that momentum through the second half and into the NCAA Tournament with an eye on taking the next step and advancing past regionals for the first time in program history.

Comments are closed.

Download our app

Read the newest magazine issue right on your phone