Campbell baseball coach Justin Haire gives an update on his team ahead of its Big South Conference tournament opener Thursday in High Point.
BUIES CREEK — Pools are opening. Flags are flying. Humps are rolling.
What now seems like an annual tradition as sacred as Memorial Day, Campbell (36-16) baseball is bracing for yet another postseason run after earning a fourth consecutive regular-season title last week.
“To get to where we want to go, there’s steps that you need to — want to — accomplish along the way," Campbell coach Justin Haire said following the championship-clinching home win over Radford University Thursday, May 19.
"And taking care of business ... from a regular-season standpoint, and winning a conference championship, is certainly one of those steps."
The Camels, who closed their slate with a 14-7 win over the Highlanders Friday, boast a Big South-leading, and program-best, 20-3 record in conference play.
CU's dominance over the past couple months has earned top-seed honors during this weekend's league tournament for a fourth consecutive season, a stark contrast to losing six of its first seven contests to open the 2022 campaign.
"Our guys have done a great job, and our coaching staff especially, of continuing to adjust and help us get better throughout the year," said Haire, who took home a second consecutive coach of the year award from conference officials on Tuesday.
"I think that's always the hardest thing, is being able to identify what the game is trying to tell you ... and then making the adjustments to try to answer that call. And we've certainly done a good job of that, I think, especially over the last six or eight weeks."
Haire's group won all of its conference series this season and is 8-2 in the last 10 matchups with Big South opponents.
Last year's title-winning club was loaded with veterans as the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This season's lineup still features two-time Big South Player of the Year Zach Neto but is littered with underclassmen, most of whom are flourishing in their new roles.
"Yeah, we've got some high-ranked prospects, but a lot of the guys that have been doing it for us day in and day out really are nobodies from nowhere," Haire said with a grin.
"They're guys that got three or six at-bats last year, that played in and out, and are brand new here. ... So it's really fun to have those guys have a lot of success."
Of the program-record 11 all-conference selections, only two are seniors (Ty Babin and Connor Denning). The rest are largely comprised of a loaded junior class, led by Drake Pierson and Tyler Halstead.
Pierson's team-high 18 home runs powers one of the country's most feared lineups, with six Camels posting double-digit dingers. As a group, CU has 105 homers and is one of just four teams nationwide to reach triple digits so far.
Meanwhile, Tyler Halstead has been a sparkplug since earning a starting position near the onset of conference play.
He currently boasts a .404 batting average (104 at-bats) and was 4-for-5 with a pair of doubles in Friday's season finale. The first-team All-Big South performer also led the league in stolen bases per game.
The supporting cast benefits from two of the nation's brightest stars.
Neto picked up where he left off in his breakout freshman campaign, defending his Big South Player of the Year nod after leading the league in batting average (.394) while finishing top five in runs, hits and home runs.
Only the second player in conference history to win multiple player of the year awards, Neto carries a 26-game hit streak into the postseason and reached safely in 44 of 45 games.
On the mound, Camels ace Thomas Harrington has carried the load. The second-year starter was voted pitcher of the year this week and his 11 wins were the most in the country this season.
Harrington, who also ranks top 10 nationally for earned-run average (1.72), was selected by USA Baseball as one of the 31 semifinalists nationwide for the 2022 Golden Spikes Award — the top honor for an amateur baseball player.
Both standouts were part of the 2021 squad that was upset by Presbyterian in the league tournament final, but were granted an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament's Starkville Regional.
Though appreciative of the program's first at-large bid, Haire feels that preventing the same outcome in this year's championship game requires staying in the moment and not looking too far ahead.
“Honestly, just breaking down the tournament into small parts, into three-inning segments,” he said.
“And if we do that, and we’re able to kind of break big things into small things, then we’ve got a chance to have a special week.”
The Camels open bracket play Thursday at 11 a.m. against No. 5 seed Charleston Southern. All tournament games are set to be streamed on ESPN+, with the championship televised on ESPNU Saturday at noon.
Tickets for the Big South Championships can be purchased through the High Point Rockers online or by calling 336-888-1000.
Donnell Coley can be reached at email@example.com or 910-230-2040.