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Duke Baseball: Ready For The Next Step?

Chris Pollard has done a brilliant job with his Duke program.

CORAL GABLES, FL - APRIL 8: Duke Head Coach Chris Pollard walks to home plate before a college baseball game between the Duke University Blue Devils and the University of Miami Hurricanes on April 8, 2017 at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field, Coral Gables, Florida. Miami defeated Duke 9-7.
Photo by Richard C. Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chris Pollard is starting his 10th season as head coach of the Duke baseball program.

What a decade it’s been. Prior to his arrival in June 2012 Duke hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1961. Now Duke has made the tournament four times in the last five seasons—excluding 2020 of course. Duke made it to the Super Regional round in 2018 and 2019, falling one win away from the College World Series both times. Duke captured the school’s first ACC Tournament title last year, beating NC State in the title game, the same NC State team that infamously ended their season one COVID-19 outbreak away from playing Vanderbilt for the NCAA title.

Pollard celebrates the upward trajectory of the program but says there’s more.

“We take a lot of pride in where we started and where we are right now. But we’re not done. There are some goals we have for this program for the last several years that we haven’t fulfilled yet and we’re excited about taking that next step.”

The only “next step” left is Omaha and the College World Series. Once in 2018 and twice in 2019 Duke was one win away from that step and couldn’t get that win. He says his program lives “with that sting” and has a “hunger to push through that door.”

Is this the year? Is this the team?

Duke lost a lot from last year, especially drafted position players Joey Loperfido (center field), shortstop Ethan Murray, catcher Mike Rothenberg and right fielder Peter Matt. Loperfido batted .374 last season, Matt hit 15 home runs.

But not everyone left. First baseman/DH Chris Crabtree is a grad student who hit 13 homers last season and had a .587 slugging percentage. Left fielder R.J. Schreck homered 18 times last season and has been named to several preseason All-America teams. Infielder Graham Pauley had what Pollard calls a “terrific summer” at the Sunbelt Collegiate League, just missing the triple crown. Pollard says Pauley could be a break-out star and praises his plate discipline and increased power. He projects to replace graduated Erickson Nichols at third base but can also play second.

Pitcher Marcus Johnson says there are other veterans hungering for their chance.

“We have a lot of guys who have stepped up and we’re looking for more. It feels like a new, more energetic culture, guys who might have been stuck behind somebody really good but on the older side because of COVID and now have opportunities and that brings an overall excitement to the team. I think our culture is the best its been since I’ve been here.”

And then there’s a freshman class ranked in the top-10 nationally by Baseball America and D1 Baseball.

Pollard and recruiting co-ordinator Josh Jordan have upgraded Duke’s recruiting on a yearly basis. Pollard says Duke has a great product to pitch, a Duke education, playing in the ACC, top-notch facilities and a player-development track record that sends players to the next level.

Crabtree has been around the program a long time and he notices.

“We’re bringing in absolute dudes every year, class-act guys. It’s easy to get new guys in the mix and develop that relationship. It’s so organic.”

Alex Mooney is the highest-profile recruit in the class, indeed in Pollard’s tenure at Duke. A shortstop from Rochester Hills, Michigan, Mooney is the highest-ranked prepster from last season to skip the pros and show up in college.

Pollard says Duke got in on Mooney early and built a relationship that withstood the attractions of the pros.

“We knew we had a special talent. He’s a great competitor with a really good motor,” a “really good teammate, a really good leader.”

Crabtree calls Mooney “an absolute stud,” while Johnson says “there isn’t a play he can’t make.”

But one stud doesn’t make a great class. Pollard says to watch out for outfielder/pitcher Jonathan Santucci, outfielder Devin Obee and pitcher Ryan Higgins. Crabtree says Oren Abbott is pushing him at first base. Andrew Yu is in the mix to replace Rothenberg at catcher. Then there’s Trevor Johnson, a grad-student transfer from Dartmouth who will see time in the outfield.

It may take some time for all this to shake out. But if Duke pitches as well as it can, Duke can absorb that. This might be the best collection of arms Pollard has ever had.

It starts with Johnson, a 6-6 sophomore and a pre-season All-America. Johnson was in the bullpen last season (seven saves) but Pollard says Duke has been “building Marcus up as a starter. He had a terrific fall and he’s had a terrific spring.”

Johnson says he’s ready.

“Starting was always my goal coming into Duke. I’m going to miss the bullpen, I’m going to miss the adrenaline rush, I’m going to miss closing games. I think I learned a lot and am going to take a lot of that into my transition as a starter.”

He says his biggest adjustment will be going through a lineup two, maybe three times in a game, saving something for that next time around.

Then there’s uber-talented but wildly inconsistent senior Cooper Stinson, all 6-6, 240 pounds of him. When Stinson is on, he can get anyone out. He held NC State to six scoreless innings in that 1-0 ACC Tournament title game. A week later Stinson allowed six runs in 0.2 innings in a season-ending loss to Liberty. This is a guy who allowed only 49 hits in 60.1 innings last season but also hit 14 batters.

Stinson was projected as a first-round pick going into last season but went undrafted. The word on the street is that the pressure is off and he’s in a good place.

Add Luke Fox (3.05 ERA last season), reliever Jimmy Loper (3.00 ERA, five saves) and Henry Williams (3.65 ERA). Pollard calls versatile Cornell transfer John Natoli his Swiss Army knife and says that “we have some really talented freshmen [pitchers] who are going to push for innings in high-leverage situations.”

“I think that we need a lot of our pitchers to step up,” Johnson acknowledges. “I think our team has a chance to really be pitching focused.”

Johnson says winning that ACC title has made Duke hungry for more hardware.

“Every single person out here wants to win the ACC championship again. In the past we always talked about Omaha but we never talked about winning the ACC. That goal still doesn’t change, wanting to go to Omaha and fulfilling that dream.”

Crabtree grew up in the area; he graduated from Durham’s Riverside High School. He remembers when Duke was third fiddle in the Triangle and takes pride in helping to change that narrative.

Crabtree says growing up he “watched all those programs. Watching the progression of the program here at Duke has been really cool and special. I’m honored to be part of that progression.”

Duke again will split its home games between the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in downtown Durham and on-campus Jack Coombs Field. VMI visits the former for a three-game series this weekend.

Pollard says the goal is always to be playing in June and he’s established a culture of blue-collar work and accountability to achieve that goal. The talent is there and everyone says the chemistry is there. Time to put all that work to good use on the diamond.