CONWAY, S.C. — The rowdy Duke players were getting impatient. They had been maintaining their position in right-center field for several minutes, holding up a banner to commemorate their triumph in the Conway Regional, posing for a team photo. But head coach Chris Pollard’s television interview just outside the dugout was running long, and they couldn’t take the photo without the skipper. So they chanted his number — “One, four! One, four!” — but Pollard was wearing headphones, he couldn’t hear them. Finally the interview ended, and Pollard sprinted out to join his players — who went wild.
It was a jubilant scene for the Blue Devils, fresh off a dominant 12-3 win against host Coastal Carolina to propel Duke to its third super regional in the last five completed seasons under Pollard’s leadership. And the contrast couldn’t have been more dramatic between this joyous tableau in Conway and the dreary scene when Duke walked off the field at Virginia Tech a year ago to complete a miserable 22-32 campaign that ended shy of even reaching the 12-team ACC tournament.
“It was a really hard place for me professionally, walking off the field in Blacksburg,” Pollard said. “It was the worst season in my career, and knowing that we needed to make some changes. And then just a few weeks later we were forced into some changes because of some opportunities for members of our coaching staff. What we talked about early in the year, my biggest hope for this season, I didn’t talk about wins and losses or end goals, but I wanted us to get back to a culture of toughness. Duke baseball had been known as a group that was gonna compete tough, and I don’t know that we had that reputation in 2022, and I wanted us to re-establish that.
“This group, led by Alex Stone and Alex Mooney and Adam Boucher as captains, and these guys that have transferred in that have brought gratitude and toughness, they have really re-established that culture of toughness around our program, and that identity of toughness. And I’m so appreciative, I’m so grateful to them for that.”
The particular transfers Pollard alluded to were the guys who came from small programs and got their first taste of big-time college baseball this year: first baseman MJ Metz and starting pitcher Alex Gow from the Division III ranks, righthander Jason White from D-II, and a couple of lower mid-major Division I transfers from the Northeast in Charlie Beilenson (Brown) and Cole Hebble (UMass). Metz and Gow were huge stars in this regional, as Metz hit four homers in Conway en route to regional MVP honors (despite playing on a torn ACL), and Gow started the regional opener then bounced back and threw four shutout innings in Monday’s Game Seven.
For Gow, the contrast between where he was a year ago, when his season ended at Kenyon (Ohio) University, and where he was Monday night in Conway was just as dramatic as the contrast for Pollard.
“For a little bit there in the fall, I kept looking up and seeing the ACC sign, and seeing Duke baseball, and saying, ‘Wow, how did I end up here?’ I was playing baseball in a cornfield in Ohio for four years. And so, just throughout the year I got more and more accustomed to it, and also the mound is still 60 feet, six inches away. The bases are still 90 feet. The game doesn’t change.”
For a pitching staff that wound up with just two healthy pitchers on the staff who threw more than 10 innings last year (Boucher and veteran lefty Aaron Beasley), Gow wound up as one of the most reliable anchors, leading the team with 16 starts, albeit in an “opener” capacity rather than a traditional workhorse role. Gow made a handful of nice five-inning starts this year, but he was never more impressive than he was Monday, when he held one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses to just one hit while striking out seven. Coastal Carolina is a true offensive juggernaut, especially at home, and the Chanticleers had scored 43 runs in the first four games of the regional.
🏆: Updates from the 2023 DI baseball championship
But Gow, Beilenson and Fran Oschell managed to shut out Coastal on one hit for the first eight innings Monday, while the offense just kept pouring it on. I don’t think I saw a more impressive overall team performance all year long, especially considering the quality of the opponent and the stakes in play.
“That was the most complete game we’ve played all year, and we were just really, really locked in,” Pollard said. “Give a ton of credit to Alex Gow, throwing on short rest. And honestly, that was the best his stuff’s been all year. It was really good. I said to [first-year pitching coach] Brady Kirkpatrick after the first inning, I said, ‘Man, his stuff is really good.’ He goes out there and gives us the four clean innings. And then Beilenson, Everyday Eddie, pitched in all four games, comes in and gives us two zeroes behind it as we were able to keep building the lead. This is just a resilient, tough, group, man. Injuries, no injuries, it’s a next man up mentality. This has been just a fun group to be around all year long, and I’m happy for them.”
It’s clear that this Duke team is just brimming with personality, and Pollard has said repeatedly this year that the new energy in the program (from his all new coaching staff of young rising stars to the reshaped roster) has reinvigorated him as well. Pollard is one of the best coaches in the country — he took a program that hadn’t made a regional in 55 years, and led it to three supers in a five-year span, for Pete’s sake — in part because he is a disciplinarian, a very detail-oriented and analytical leader who expects laser focus from his players as well. This group has delivered on that front, but has also made it a joyous journey all along the way.
“I can’t think of a group in 24 years that I’ve had more fun being around, just because of their spirit, their energy, the way they care about each other, the way they enjoy being around each other, it’s infectious,” Pollard said. “If you’ve ever ridden on a a bus with this group or sat in a team meal or in a hotel lobby, man, there’s such a really cool vibe around this group, and it’s rubbed off on all of us.”
When Pollard mentioned the bus rides, Gow and Stone glanced at each other and smirked. Later on they explained that they have an obsession with a game called “Mafia”, which they play on bus rides and in hotels and anywhere else they find themselves.
“It just keeps us loose, and we’ve probably played over a thousand games,” Stone said.
Gow piped in, “It makes those bus rides go pretty quick — three and a half hours goes by pretty fast.”
Pollard waited a beat, then added, “This is the only group I’ve ever been around that wants longer bus rides. They would be happy to bus to Palo Alto, they just enjoy being on the bus and hanging out, and it’s loud and it’s festive. They make me laugh. A lot.”
In a way, this group has brought Pollard back to his coaching roots in the Division III ranks. His coaching background truly is “#BlueCollar”, as Duke’s hashtag goes, and adding the small-school guys to the mix this year has injected some more of that mentality, helping to transform the culture of the program back to where it was when Duke was rolling a couple of years ago.
“I’ll tell you what, they have added so much value to our culture, because they come at it from such a different perspective,” Pollard said. “Every day, they’ve got so much gratitude for the opportunities, because they’re living something that — they’ve seen the other side of college baseball. They’ve ridden in 15-passenger vans, they’ve slept three, four to a hotel room and tried to make it on 15 bucks of meal money. And for some of our guys that have played in the highest-profile travel organizations, and have played in some of these really competitive high school programs and were recruited by the blue bloods, they don’t know the other side of college baseball. So it’s easy to take some of this stuff for granted, but some of these guys are like me, when I was at Pfeiffer and Davidson, they’ve cut their teeth in the other side of it, so they have a love and a passion, and they’re so thankful to be here. And that energy is infectious, that’s permeated, and it’s helped our gratitude a lot this year.”
Metz, the hulking 6-foot-6, 240-pound first baseman who tore his ACL during a home run celebration last week at the ACC tournament, was particularly happy to be on the field this weekend (as the DH). That outcome was very much in doubt heading into the weekend — and then Metz went out and mashed three homers in Friday’s regional opener against UNCW. He went 3-for-5 in Monday’s clincher, with another home run, a double, and three RBIs.
“It’s crazy, it’s like a Disney script. He hits the three home runs on one ACL. I said, ‘I hope you get a chance to tell your grandkids about this.’ This is movie kind of stuff,” Pollard said. “A week ago, we didn’t know if he was gonna play at all this weekend. I waited until the last possible minute to fill out our roster — you’ve got to fill out a 27-man for the tournament. He and I sat down after lunch, we practiced here on Thursday in the morning, we had lunch. I said, ‘Man, what do you want to do? It’s your decision. If you want to give it a go, you’ve earned it, but I also don’t want you to go out there and feel like we’re asking you to do something where you can’t.’ He said, ‘I think I can do it, I want to give it a shot.’ It was at that point Thursday afternoon, probably two hours before we had to turn our roster in, that we even made a final decision to have him on our roster. And you know what? Four home runs and a couple doubles later, he’s an all-regional guy.”
Just another unlikely hero on a team jammed with them. That’s not to take anything away from the legitimate stars on this team who are prominent pro prospects — Mooney, Oschell, Jay Beshears, Alex Stone and James Tallon come to mind. Duke isn’t just some scrappy underdog story, this is a very talented club. But it’s also a team with some very special mojo going, and that really matters. These guys are just having too much fun together, and they refuse to end the ride.
“The mantra for us all week was, let’s just fight for another week together. We won on Friday night, and we said, ‘Hey, that buys us another day together.’ We won on Saturday, and said, ‘Hey, that gives us at least one more day,'” Pollard said. “And the message pregame today was ‘Hey, let’s just go out and fight for the right to be together for one more week, and that’s how we’re going to approach this.'”
The next bus ride — up to Charlottesville — should be another great one.