It wasn’t long ago that Greg Goff would call a recruiting prospect and identify himself as the head baseball coach at Campbell University.
“Who?” would be the usual response at the other end of the line.
Goff would repeat himself. Invariably, the next question would be, “You guys Division I?”
The Campbell Camels not only are Division I, they’re one of the best teams in the nation right now. They’ve won 70 games over two seasons – most in back-to-back seasons at Campbell – and this week they are ranked as high as No. 25 in the major polls.
Suddenly, the profile has been raised for the 6,000-student private school whose primary campus is in Buies Creek, N.C.
The Camels go into this weekend’s Big South Conference home series against Longwood 29-6 overall and leading the league’s North Division at 9-3.
As of mid-week, the Camels were third in the nation with 8.2 runs a game and sixth with a .325 batting average. They’ve hit a respectable 16 home runs, but this veteran club is winning because of their aggressive and creative play. They’ve been hit by pitches 83 times, second-most in the country, and are second in stolen bases with 97. They also are first in sacrifice flies.
The Camels made the nation’s biggest turnaround last year, going from 17 wins in 2011 to a school-record 41. But 2012 ended with a 1-2 showing at the Big South tournament.
Campbell has taken an NCAA Tournament-or-bust approach to this season. They have reached the tournament just once, going 0-2 in 1990.
“The sky’s the limit, honestly,” starting pitcher Ryan Mattes said. “Forty-one wins was great. Without the ring on our finger, it doesn’t really matter. This year, everyone’s thinking 50 (wins), getting to regionals and seeing what happens there. We can play against any team.”
Clayton Brown, who didn’t crack the starting lineup until the fifth game, is third in the nation with his .459 average out of the No. 9 hole. He’s 16 for 32 during his current nine-game hitting streak.
Ben McQuown, the leadoff man, leads the nation with a school-record 37 stolen bases and 46 runs scored. Elijah Trail leads the Big South with 37 RBI. Returning All-American and Big South preseason co-player of the year Michael Felton has overcome a slow start to bat .328 with 36 RBI.
“One game, it might be this guy, this guy, this guy and the next game it might be that guy, that guy, that guy,” Goff said. “To be honest with you, I don’t think we’ve peaked as a team. I still feel like we’ve got progress to make.”
The top three starters – Mattes, Hector Cedano and Heath Bowers – have six wins apiece. The 6-foot-7, 205-pound Mattes, who set a school record with 10 saves as the closer last season, mixes a fastball in the upper-80s with a solid breaking pitch and changeup. The left-handed Cedano throws in the mid-80s, and Bowers induces lots of groundballs with his sinking fastball.
Logan Self, Coley Thompkins and David Olson have been solid out of the bullpen, and the 6-5 submarine-throwing Ryan Thompson has six saves.
Campbell has won two of three against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, sweeping Duke 9-3 and 6-3 and losing to North Carolina State 5-2. The Camels also have 6-4 and 8-6 wins over East Carolina of Conference USA.
Next season, the Camels are scheduled to play at powerhouse North Carolina for the first time since 2007. Buies Creek is just 55 miles south of Chapel Hill, home of the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels, but the schools are worlds apart in baseball tradition.
Pitchers Gaylord and Jim Perry, the second-winningest brother combination in major league history, are the best-known players to have worn the Camels’ uniform. But that was in the 1950s, when the school was a junior college. (The Camels’ home stadium is named for Jim Perry.)
Only seven Campbell players have been taken in the draft since 2000. Some of the top programs have that many or more drafted in a single year.
Goff, recruiting coordinator Justin Haire and pitching coach Rick McCarty searched far and wide to assemble the players on this year’s team. Seven states were represented in the Camels’ batting order in their last game. North Carolina was not one of them, but Washington, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, California, Mississippi and Hawaii were.
The more the Camels win, the more interest the program is generating.
Goff said he’s noticed a change when he makes that first call to a prospect and tells him he’s from Campbell.
“Now it’s like, ‘Hey, Campbell. Yes, sir. I’m interested,’” Goff said. “Winning last year put us on the map. This year, following it up ... Hey, Campbell really is for real.”