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John Seelke On The Rise Of Duke Baseball

Another sport for Duke to excel in?

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Duke v North Carolina Wilmington
PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17: The Duke Blue Devils mascot looks on prior to the game between the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks and the Duke Blue Devils during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Dunkin’ Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Over the past 50 years, Duke sports have produced national champions or national semi-finalists on the hardwood of the basketball court, the turf of the soccer or lacrosse fields or the grass of the golf course. One place where Duke has some slight success combined with multiple years of struggle has been the baseball diamond. The trend in struggling in baseball may be turning the tide, as the 2018 Blue Devil baseball team is seeded second in the four team Athens, GA regional, hosted by the top team in the region, the Georgia Bulldogs.

The last time that Duke earned an NCAA tournament win in baseball was 1961, yet before that the Blue Devils made the NCAA World Series three different years (1952, 53 and 1961). One of the top players to lead Duke to their first NCAA appearance in baseball, Dick Groat, actually has his jersey retired in Cameron Indoor Stadium. In his professional sports career, Groat is certainly more known for his performance on the baseball diamond, including winning the 1960 National League Most Valuable Player Award while helping lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series title. However, in Durham, Groat was a two time All-American in both baseball and basketball and may well be more famous in Cameron Indoor Stadium than any place else on campus.

As a reporter for the Chronicle in the mid-1990s, I covered Duke baseball when it seemed to be on the rise. In the 1994 season, the Blue Devils won 33 games and placed second in the ACC with a 16-8 record. Despite the success, Duke was left out of the then 48-team NCAA Tournament. One year later, I wrote a column how in order to become more competitive, Duke baseball needed to schedule better non-conference teams.

Since that time, Duke baseball suffered through six straight losing seasons (1999-2006) as well as a scandal involving their head coach, Bill Hillier, and steroids. In 2006, the team turned to alumnus and former All-ACC player, Sean McNally, to revitalize the program. McNally made some strides, including a 37-win season in 2008, yet a poor conference record that year again prevented Duke from making an NCAA appearance.

In 2012. Duke called on Chris Pollard, former head coach from Appalachian State, to make Duke baseball relevant again. He’s quickly done just that, leading the Blue Devils to five straight 30-win seasons. More importantly, Duke has shown success in a very competitive baseball conference. In 2016, Duke returned to the NCAA Tournament, but failed to win a game. This year, the Blue Devils have the opportunity to not only gain a win, but possibly pull off an upset and move to an NCAA Super Regional. Additionally, some of the current Blue Devils may hear their names called during the early rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft. Those players include right fielder Griffin Conine, the son of former Major League baseball Jeff Conine. With this upwards trend, soon the Blue Devils may be known as champions in one more spring sport.

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