Campbell has not played in an NCAA baseball tournament in nearly a quarter of a century. So there is no way to expect the Fighting Camels to fully understand the electric atmosphere they will face Friday night at Carolina Stadium.
Approximately 8,000 garnet-clad maniacs are expected to greet Campbell for the first pitch. That is nearly twice as many fans as Campbell has students (4,663 enrollment) on its main campus in Buies Creek, N.C.
Of Campbell’s 59 games this season, only six were played before crowds of greater than 1,000. The largest audiences to see Campbell play were 1,561 at North Carolina and 2,395 at East Carolina.
This is truly a college athletics example of the Christians being fed to the lions, especially when you consider that Campbell touts itself as a “Christian university affiliated with a Baptist tradition,” and that USC proudly boasts a tradition of treating guests rudely to the tune of 27 consecutive NCAA tournament home victories, including the past 16 in a row since moving to Carolina Stadium.
No matter, Campbell says it will not be intimidated.
“You’ve got to get comfortable in an uncomfortable situation to be successful,” says Greg Goff, Campbell’s seventh-year head coach whose club counts itself among only eight programs nationally that have posted three consecutive 40-win seasons.
It is not a matter of whether Campbell can play solid baseball. The Fighting Camels have proved they can do that. Among Campbell’s 40 victims this season are Missouri, N.C. State and Virginia Tech from the power conferences.
Rather, it is a matter of how Campbell will react under the pressure of playing on one of the nation’s biggest and best baseball stages. While USC announced crowds this season that averaged 7,541 at Carolina Stadium, Campbell played in front of an average home crowd of 427.
There were more folks walking the concourse during USC home games than in the stands at Campbell home games. So, you have to wonder how a Campbell team that does not have a single player with NCAA tournament experience will react when facing not only one of the nation’s best teams, but also an environment it is unaccustomed to.
Chad Holbrook certainly knows how it works for his USC team.
“Our fans understand the sense of urgency when postseason play gets here,” Holbrook says. “Sometimes in the middle of the week or in the regular season, they might sit around a little bit and just expect us to pull it out. But they help us pull it out in the postseason. They get off their rear ends and it gets loud in here. It makes it more fun to play, to be honest with you.
“We have an incredible atmosphere, one that’s very, very unique in college baseball. Sometimes when our backs are against the wall and things get a little bit dicey, our fans kind of will us to make us win a game here or there that maybe we shouldn’t have won.”
That is not likely to be lost on USC’s other two possible regional opponents, Maryland and Old Dominion. Although impossible to duplicate the Carolina Stadium atmosphere, those two teams have played road games in hostile environments.
Maryland’s seniors have the experience of playing at Texas as freshmen, at UCLA as sophomores, at LSU as juniors and at Florida State this season. The largest crowd Maryland played in front of this season was 4,801 at Florida State.
Unfortunately for Maryland, playing in a regional is all-new for everyone associated with the club. The Terps last experienced an NCAA tournament game when its 47-year-old coach, John Szefc, was 4.
Old Dominion has much more recent experience with NCAA tournament games, having gone two-and-out in its last two appearances – both at Clemson – in 1996 and 2000. The Monarchs also have played two games this season in front of crowds in excess of 2,000 at Rice and another of 3,422 at Virginia.
“What your guys end up learning when you go through playing at some good places,” says Old Dominion coach Chris Finwood, “you learn that the fans don’t get to play. So, you can come out and just play the game and you will be better off.”
Obviously, over the years that has been much easier said than done for postseason visitors to Carolina Stadium.