College baseball's great success story might just reside in Buies Creek, N.C.
Ask anyone about Campbell University, the Camels baseball program, or Buies Creek, and chances are pretty good you'll get a couple of blank stares. But for starters, Campbell is a Baptist institution, that until just now, wasn't allowed to play on Sundays. Furthermore, the small town of Buies Creek, population 2,215, sits 30 miles south of Raleigh N.C.
Something else you might not know about Campbell is that former big league All-Star Jim Perry and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry spent their college days there.
Though the Camels might be known more, at least for now, for their rather unique nickname considering their nestled in the middle of North Carolina, or the Perry brothers, there's positive change in the air thanks to the job coach Greg Goff and his baseball team are doing so far this spring, sitting in very good shape with a 22-3 overall record.
"The biggest thing to me about this club is that our offense has been very consistent so far this season," Campbell coach Greg Goff said. "Our starting pitching, for the most part, has been pretty good, but could use a little improvement, while the bullpen has been solid."
The Camels, who recently unveiled a brand new ballpark, were put on the college baseball map last spring when second baseman Michael Felton had an incredible offensive campaign and was named a national All-American by some outlets.
But while Felton's past production and background is intriguing, it's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rest of this Camels' club. Twenty-five games into the season, the Camels sit atop the Big South from an offensive standpoint with a .328 batting average, good enough for fourth nationally.
Most intriguing about this offensive unit, and this club in general, is the sheer number of out-of-state prospects making a difference for the hard-hitting Camels.
Take highly productive third baseman Elijah Trail for example. Trail has evolved into one of the nation's elite hitters this spring, batting .351 with nine doubles, a triple, five homers and 33 RBIs. Trail, surprisingly, hails from Bakersfield, Calif.
Those unique starting points are consistent amongst many of the Campbell contributors. First baseman Nick Ray hails from Gulfport Miss., shortstop Brent Graham, who's hitting .403 with a home run and 19 RBIs, is from Portland, Ore., Felton is from Tempe, Ariz., leading hitter Clayton Brown is from Seattle, outfielder Aaron Vogt is from Eureka, Mo., and surprising of all, terrific outfielder Ben McQuown arrived at CU way of Hawaii.
That trend only continues on the mound, where the Camels have some key arms from Miami, Virginia, Ohio, Oregon, among other intriguing areas. Say what you want about Campbell, but it recruits nationally, and apparently does a dang good job of it with assistant coaches Justin Haire and Rick McCarty leading the charge.
"The biggest difference for us so far this season has been Elijah Trail coming in and solidifying our middle of the order. He's been good, and frankly, it's been crazy to see the type of success we've had with California kids, and kids from other areas," Goff said. "We've got two great assistants in Justin and Ricky recruiting out there, and it's really incredible to see the amount of hours they put on a plane. They do a great job of identifying kids and reeling them in to our program.
"There aren't exactly a lot of kids out there growing up wanting to be Campbell Camels, so our guys do a terrific job," he continued. "They really believe in what we're building."
Trial, for instance, has been a real success story thus far. The Camels had a hunch Trail would turn out to be a productive hitter at the Division I level. However, he didn't get a lot of looks out in California after hitting .270 at Bakersfield CC last season.
The talented third baseman isn't alone when it comes to success stories. Leading hitter Clayton Brown finished last season with a batting average in the 200s. Yet, this spring, he's hitting an impressive .453 with three doubles and 11 RBIs. Meanwhile, McQuown, the Hawaii native, is hitting .378 with eight doubles, four homers and 17 RBIs, while Brent Graham has taken a big step forward with a .403 average, a home run and 19 RBIs.
Interestingly, Felton, who had such a great 2012 campaign, is just fifth on the team in hitting right now with a .313 average, two homers and 29 RBIs.
"Trail has really grown as a hitter. He's gained a lot of strength, and he really opened some eyes with a home run he hit against ECU a while back, along with his consistency," Goff said. "He's a hard-working guy the scouts in this area are really starting to look at.
"As for Michael, he's not really getting pitched to very often. Mike is having to learn that needs to take some walks and have some quality at-bats," he continued. "His average is starting to go back up as he's getting more patient at the plate. With all the publicity and what not that he's earned, he wants to hit because he's an aggressive guy."
Though the Camels are headlined by their ultra-productive offense, they also have a solid pitching staff, which enters this weekend's action with a 3.46 ERA.
Campbell is led on the mound by right-handed pitcher Ryan Mattes, who served as the team's closer last season. Mattes has made a smooth transition to his new role, sitting pretty with a 2.47 ERA in 40 innings, along with 24 strikeouts and seven walks. Mattes sits 88-89 with his fastball, while also throwing a two-seam fastball at 84-85 along with quality upper 70s breaking ball.
"He had the best stuff for us last year, but we weren't real sure if he could maintain that velocity for seven or eight innings. He can, though," Goff said. "He's one of those guys who simply isn't going to beat himself. He can pitch to contact, or he can go out there and pitch to get some strikeouts. He's been exceptional so far this spring."
Goff would like to see Hector Cedano and Matt Marksberry -- who have earned-run averages of four or higher so far this season -- be a bit more consistent in their starting roles, while he feels very good about relievers Ryan Thompson and David Olson.
Thompson has appeared in 12 games and has a 1.38 ERA and five saves in 26 innings, while Olson has appeared in six games with a 1.69 ERA in 10 2/3 innings.
"Thompson is another one of those West Coast guys we were able to reel in, doing so without him even visiting the campus. He's been great and solidifies our bullpen with his mid-80s offerings and slurve," he said. "Olson has particularly been a setup guy for us this season, and he, too, is doing a terrific job.
"I'd also keep an eye on Cedano and Marksberry moving forward. Marksberry is a power lefty type with a fastball 86-89 while Cedano has mid-80s stuff with a good cutter and breaking ball."
Despite having such an intriguing team, the Camels likely must avoid any major hiccups the rest of the way to earn an NCAA postseason at-large bid, or of course, win the Big South tournament in a couple of months.
But no matter what happens, the Camels, and now, Buies Creek, N.C., are on the national map … in more ways than one, I might add.
MID-MAJOR HOT BOARD
South Alabama: The Jaguars continue to take care of business in impressive fashion. USA has now won five-straight contests and are on the cusp of the Perfect Game College Top 25. Two-way player Jordan Patterson has been a star this spring. In addition to hitting .407 with three homers and 27 RBIs, he also has a 4.05 ERA in 6 2/3 innings on the mound.
Mercer: The Bears continue to rack up wins with a balanced club. Mercer is hitting .296 as a team and has an excellent top of the lineup with Derrick Workman and Chesny Young leading the way. Workman is hitting .420 with five homers and 30 RBIs, while Young is hitting .362 with 26 RBIs.
Florida Gulf Coast: The Eagles have been on our radar the entire season for a good reason. Starting pitchers Ricky Knapp (1.15) and Brandon Bixler (1.71) have been very consistent, while Brandon Bednar (.389) and Brooks Beisner (.376) continue to rally impressive numbers at the plate.
Georgia Southern: Rodney Hennon's Eagles are starting to get on a roll this spring. The Eagles lost some key cogs from last year's club, but are getting contributions from many areas this season. First baseman T.D. Davis is hitting an impressive .362 with eight doubles, seven homers and 30 RBIs, while Matt McCall leads the way on the mound with a 3.42 ERA in 26 1/3 innings of work.
Belmont: The Bruins, as fully expected before the season, should be right there with Austin Peay when it comes to the Ohio Valley regular season title. The Bruins are off to a solid 5-1 start in league play and have one of the nation's elite arms in starting pitcher Chase Brookshire. Brookshire is 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA in 40 innings. He also has struck out 41 and walked five, while teams are hitting him at a .203 clip.
Indiana State: The Sycamores are off to a solid 3-0 start in Missouri Valley play and have one of the nation's elite pitchers and prospects in left-handed junior Sean Manaea. Manaea has an 0.84 ERA in 32 innings of work, while Devin Moore has started three games and has a 2.15 ERA in 29 1/3 innings.
McNeese State: The Cowboys suddenly are playing a solid brand of baseball, and shocked many last weekend with a road series win over Lamar. Starting pitchers Blake Ware (1.91) and Bryce Kingsley (2.88) are having solid campaigns, while Jackson Gooch leads the offense with a .340 average, 10 doubles, three homers and 24 RBIs.
UNC Wilmington: Not surprisingly, the Seahawks are off to an impressive 4-1 start in Colonial Athletic play this spring. Jordan Ramsey (1.70) is having a great season on the mound thus far, while Michael Bass continues to be a monster at the plate, hitting .424 with eight doubles, four homers and 20 RBIs.