Campbell’s redemption starts at Big South Tournament

The Camels were eliminated in last year’s NCAA regional by eventual champion Mississippi State

Campbell catcher Ty Babin tags out a Winthrop runner baserunner. (Photo courtesy of Campbell)

The Campbell baseball team couldn’t wait to get back to the postseason after coming within a run of extending eventual national champion Mississippi State to a decisive winner-take-all final game in an NCAA regional last spring.

The Camels were so intent on getting another opportunity to make a breakthrough on the national stage they momentarily lost sight of what it took to get there.

It took a 1-6 start to the regular season for them to regain their focus.

They responded by winning 36 of their next 46 games, pounding out home runs at a school-record pace on the way to their fourth straight Big South title. Thursday in High Point, coach Justin Haire and his team will finally get their shot at returning to an NCAA regional when they begin play as the top seed in their conference tournament.

“We try not to press or get too far ahead of ourselves, but at the same time there was a point where we needed to get things going in the right direction,” said fifth-year senior catcher Ty Babin, a .328 hitter who is one of six team members with double-digit homers this season. “It’s almost like we got to the point where enough’s enough and things just started clicking.

“You come in with all these expectations in preseason and you have all this outside noise, and once you finally realize that the outside noise means absolutely nothing and the only thing that matters is those guys in the clubhouse, that’s when things start to change.”

In retrospect, the Camels’ slow start may have had as much to do with the competition as it did their performance. Three of the early losses came at the hands of Maryland, which went on to win the Big Ten.

But Haire puts the blame squarely on himself.

“I don’t think I did a great job of putting our guys in a position to be successful,” the 15th-year coach said. “I wanted to get off to a good start so badly because I knew those games would be important when it came to RPI that we almost coached them out of being good players.

“As we started to establish how we needed to communicate with our players and our staff, we got better. We’re probably better over the past two months because of the 1-6 start, but it sure wasn’t fun when we were going through it.”

The turnaround began on March 2 with a 7-4 win over then-No. 8 NC State.

The Camels followed that up by beating Ohio State, one of three wins they earned against the Buckeyes, and their confidence grew from there. Their 20 conference wins are the most in program history in a 24-game league schedule.

The secret to Campbell’s success is hardly a secret at all.

The Camels’ pitching staff, led by ace right-hander Thomas Harrington, has posted the Big South’s lowest earned run average by more than a run per game. A potential first round pick in next month’s major league draft, Harrington is 11-1 with a 1.72 ERA.

Campbell’s offense, meanwhile, leads the league with an average of 8.9 runs per game. Its next home run will be its 106th, tying the single-season school record set in 1985.

“We hit 73 (homers) last year, and as we were doing it, one of our guys asked me what the school record was. I told him it was 106 and it was from 1985 (when high-powered aluminum bats were still legal),” Haire said. “I said that’s a record that will never be broken here. But we’ve got a deep lineup and some dynamic guys that have put in the work. When they start hitting, it’s contagious and it’s fun to watch.”

Although three-time Big South Player of the Week Zach Neto (.394, 14 homers), Drake Pierson (.346, 18), Jarrod Belbin (.274, 15) and Babin (14 homers) are the heavy hitters in the lineup, there are no easy outs from one to nine.

And the Camels may just be hitting their stride, having scored 10 or more runs in 19 of their last 26 games.

They went 23-3 during that stretch, a run that has made them the heavy favorite to win the Big South Tournament and earn the league’s automatic NCAA bid.

Not that they can afford to get caught looking ahead again.

Because most regional projections have them on the bubble for an at-large bid should they get upset this weekend, taking care of business in High Point is the only way of guaranteeing a shot at accomplishing the goal they’ve been chasing since last spring.

“I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, I’d say it’s just a matter of finishing the job we’ve started,” Babin said of his team’s situation. “We’ve challenged ourselves in the midweek with a really tough out-of-conference schedule, that’s what makes us go into (the Big South Tournament) loose and with confidence.

“We just have to remain in the moment more than thinking of expectations of things that aren’t yet to come.”