The Fayetteville Observer: Campbell baseball riding major turnaround


Staff writer
The Fayetteville Observer

BUIES CREEK -- Greg Goff thought he had Campbell University's baseball program headed in the right direction after back-to-back winning seasons in 2009-10.

But then came 2011.

Injuries to key pitchers sent the Camels tumbling to a 17-37 overall finish that was the second-worst in a decade. They also went 3-27 to place dead last in the tough Atlantic Sun Conference.

The unexpected slide produced some self-doubt for the 39-year-old Goff.

"To be honest, I was on my hands and knees a lot" in prayer, Goff said. "You think you have things figured out, and sometimes you don't. It was a humbling experience and tough to get through.''

Goff and the Camels have reversed those difficult times in dramatic fashion.

Campbell, which moved to the Big South Conference this season, enters today's home game against league foe Charleston Southern with a 23-3 record and riding an 18-game winning streak. The victory run is the best in school history and currently the longest among Division I programs.

Mix of veterans, youth

Goff has directed the turnaround with a mixture of veterans, including rehabilitated pitchers like Matt Sergey, and an influx of junior college talent.

"When last year was over, we didn't just sit here and take it,'' Goff said. "We said, 'OK, let's go find the players.' ''

And go they did.

Goff, along with assistants Justin Haire and Rick McCarty, took lengthy road trips to places such Arizona, Oklahoma and Washington state to sign up 10 junior college players. Among those were second baseman Michael Felton, from Tempe, Ariz., and outfielder Jake Kirkland from Pauline, S.C.

Felton leads the nation with 48 base hits and tops the Big South with a .453 batting average. Kirkland is third in Big South batting with a .406 average, is tied for fourth with four home runs and is tied for second with 27 RBIs.

"We felt like we needed guys in the middle of the lineup who could hit,'' Goff said. "Those guys have provided that for us.''

Led by Felton, Kirkland and leadoff hitter Jimmy Brenneman - the Big South's steals leader with 19 - the Camels pace the conference in hitting at .338.

Change on the mound

The real change occurred on the pitching staff, where players such as Sergey have rebounded from injuries.

A right-hander from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sergey was 2-4 as a starter in 2010 before suffering an elbow injury while pitching against USC-Upstate late in the year. Repairing his arm required the complex Tommy John surgery - a reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.

It was four months before Sergey could begin throwing again, and another 14 months before he was back to 100 percent. By then, he'd suffered through the 2011 season with the Camels, though watching from the sidelines.

"It was a tough time,'' Sergey said. "But I took it as an opportunity to work even harder and come back even stronger.''

Sergey has done just that, producing a 3-0 record with a 2.79 earned run average and league-leading 41 strikeouts. He was recently named the Big South Pitcher of the Week and has formed a solid 1-2 punch for the Camels along with senior Frank Zier (3-0, 2.48 ERA).

Campbell's strong start has been a surprise to Sergey, but now he believes the Camels have the talent to make a run at the Big South Conference title, and beyond. A Campbell team hasn't advanced to the NCAA tournament since 1990.

"That would be a dream come true,'' Sergey said. "We work every day from the time we get back to campus for that goal. But we've still got a long way to go before we start thinking about that.''

Staff writer Sammy Batten can be reached at battens@fayobserver.com or 486-3534.