D2 baseball tournament ‘where it belongs’ in Cary

After losing the tournament in 2017 due to H.B. 2, the NCAA returned to Cary for this year’s event

Columbus State’s Chase Brown collects a base hit during Sunday’s Division II College World Series game against Mercyhurst in Cary. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

CARY — As a youngster growing up in Nebraska, Mark Clements’ father took him to Omaha every spring to attend the Division I College World Series at historic old Rosenblatt Stadium.

It was an experience that had a profound effect on him.

Clements, an associate athletic director at Northwest Missouri State and the chairman of the NCAA Division II baseball committee, was struck by how much fun he had and, as he thinks back, how perfectly suited the venue was for the event.

He said he gets a similar feeling these days as wanders around the ballpark taking in the sights and sounds at the Division II College World Series, which is currently going on at the USA Baseball Training Complex.

“I look forward to this like no other event,” Clements said.

The appreciation he and others associated with the D2 CWS have for the weeklong tournament in Cary has been heightened this year because of the unwanted sabbatical it took to Grand Prairie, Texas, in 2017.

The championship was one of several the NCAA pulled out of North Carolina because of the state’s controversial “bathroom bill” known as H.B. 2.

Losing the World Series was a blow to those that worked so hard to bring it here a decade ago and put considerable effort into making Cary as synonymous to the Division II event as Omaha is to Division I.

“I was concerned about H.B. 2 and whether this event would ever come back,” said Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. “I was also concerned at the start before I went to Grand Prairie that even if the event left for one year, would they go somewhere and find somewhere bigger and better, nicer and newer and never come back?”

The University of Mount Olive, Town of Cary and USA Baseball are the hosts for the NCAA Division II College World Series, which returned to North Carolina after a year away because of H.B. 2. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

As it turned out, Dupree and others associated with co-hosts University of Mount Olive, Town of Cary and USA Baseball need not have worried. Because when it comes to the Division II World Series, absence does apparently make the heart grow fonder.

It didn’t hurt that the experience in Grand Prairie was anything but optimal.

There were issues involving the minor league team whose stadium was being used for the games, along with other logistical problems, including the location and condition of practice fields.

“Not to speak ill, but last year’s experience was definitely a different spectre,” Clements said. “I can say being here in Cary is like heaven. It’s coming home. I’m not a big social media guy, but my post on Friday when we got here was, ‘We’re back where we belong, where people know your name and care about this event.’”

Although the Division II World Series is much smaller in scope and gets considerably less attention than its Division I cousin in Omaha, you’d never know it from the way co-tournament directors Jeff Eisen of Mount Olive and Town of Cary’s Chris Duty, and the staff of USA Baseball approach it.

From the pretournament banquet at RBC Center to the fireworks display on opening night and an optional side trip to a Durham Bulls game, local organizers have done everything they can to make the experience a memorable one for those involved.

Signage at the USA Baseball Training Center welcomes fans to the NCAA Division II College World Series in Cary (Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

“This experience here is fantastic,” said UC San Diego coach Eric Newman, whose team finished as the national runner-up last year in Grand Prairie. “I can’t say enough about how this atmosphere feels and how enjoyable it is to be part of this. I’m happy for our players, I’m happy to be a part of this.”

Along with Newman’s Tritons, the other teams involved in this year’s double-elimination tournament are Augustana, Columbus State, Florida Southern, Mercyhurst, Southern Indiana, Southern New Hampshire and Texas A&M-Kingsville.

Games are scheduled every day this week, weather permitting, with the championship decided on Saturday at 3 p.m. In addition to the fireworks, a number of other promotions and giveaways are also scheduled.

“We want to bring in new experiences and look to things that are different and fresh to keep the trend that we had going and keep moving in the right direction,” Eisen said. “We want it to be a great experience for the student-athlete. I think everybody’s happy with it here.”

While the hospitality is a major reason why the D2 World Series has become such a fixture in Cary — and will remain so through at least through 2022 — it’s only part of the equation.

The other half is the venue itself.

The USA Baseball Training Center features four immaculately manicured fields built to Major League specifications, allowing teams to practice in the same complex and under the same conditions as they play. The signature field — Coleman Stadium — has a capacity of about 3,500 both in permanent seating and two large grassy banks, and it is adorned with championship signage everywhere the eye can see.

“When we first talked about this facility bringing the D2 World Series here, we thought that this could be the perfect park and the perfect destination for this event,” Dupree said. “We wondered that and thought it, but didn’t know it. Now 10 years later I can say confidently that this is the perfect venue for this event. The community, the ballpark, the partners, everything has come together perfectly.”