Throughout a baseball life that began when he was four, the word “Omaha” has naturally carved itself a place in his vocabulary, by being on equipment and as a topic of conversation. It’s been both a lofty goal and hopeful destination, ever-present through countless swings, infield drills and games while growing up in northern Mecklenburg County, and Omaha is even stamped on the bat Russell swings today as a college sophomore. The city in eastern Nebraska represents so much in an aspiring baseball player’s life, and that’s been the case for Russell in his pursuit.
Now, he is seeing his lifelong dream realized.
The North Carolina Tar Heel shortstop from Huntersville and Hopewell High is heading to Omaha — to play in the College World Series.
“It still hasn’t really hit us yet that we’re going to the College World Series,” Russell said Tuesday evening, a few hours after UNC’s 5-4 win over South Carolina in Game 3 of the Chapel Hill Super Regional. “It’s crazy.”
The Tar Heels (57-10) will make their first CWS appearance since 2011 and sixth since 2006, when another Huntersville product, North Meck High’s Michael Cavasinni, was a starting UNC outfielder. The trip to the Mecca of college baseball will be the first for Russell, even as a traveler.
“I heard it’s pretty crazy, and the whole city revolves this time of year around the College World Series,” said Russell. “It should be a blast.”
The Tar Heels will meet a familiar foe in their opening game Sunday at 3 p.m. on ESPN. The N.C. State Wolfpack are making their second CWS appearance and first since 1968, when Cornelius’ Clem Huffman was State’s second baseman (see online story), and the old rivals will meet for the first time since UNC won a 2-1 18-inning game in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament last month. UNC has won two of the three meetings this season.
“It’s a big enough rivalry as it is when we see each other in the regular season,” said Russell. “It’ll probably be like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
Russell was 0-for-4 at the plate and reached on an error in the 6-5 Game 1 win over the Gamecocks on Saturday and was again 0-for-4 Sunday as the Gamecocks evened the best-of-three series with an 8-0 win. But Tuesday, he was 1-for-3, was hit by a pitch on his right foot and scored a run in the second inning when Brian Holberton homered to give UNC a 2-1 lead. Then as South Carolina batted in the top of the ninth, with two outs and the tying run on first base, Grayson Greiner hit a chopper up the middle. Russell moved left, fielded the ball cleanly, threw to Mike Zolk at second to get the game’s final out, and the celebration began.
“It just happened that the ball got hit to me,” said Russell. “Once we made that final out, pandemonium set in and we threw our stuff and dogpiled.”
Russell is hitting .304 with 10 doubles, three triples, two home runs and 36 RBIs this season and is second on the team with 18 stolen bases. Russell has started all but one game this season, with only first baseman Cody Stubbs and third baseman Colin Moran having been in the lineup for all 67 games. All but a handful of Russell’s starts have come at shortstop.
Looking for its first national title in baseball, UNC finished second in the CWS in 2006 and 2007, third in 2008 and fifth in 2009 and 2011. The 2013 CWS appearance is the 10th in program history, the Tar Heels having also made Omaha trips in 1960, 1966, 1978 and 1989.
Russell, who wears No. 5 and typically bats sixth in the order, is ecstatic to be a part of the most recent run.
“We’ve been watching this all our lives,” he said. “Now, we’re in it. It’s crazy.”