Mark Scalf has it rolling now, as pretty and replenishing as the waves at nearby Wrightsville Beach.
UNC Wilmington, with its draft prospects, national rankings and equipment contracts, returned to the NCAA baseball tournament for the sixth time since 2003. Among state programs, only North Carolina, N.C. State and East Carolina have been there more often in that span. And no Division I baseball coach in the state has won more games at his current school than Scalf, who had 727 victories entering Friday’s Charlottesville Regional.
But there was a time when a Road to Omaha was as unthinkable as an interstate connecting Raleigh and the Port City.
Open tryouts in the fall. Four scholarships to divide among 30 players. Coaches splitting time between grading exams and filling out lineup cards. Recruiting is demanding enough, let alone trying to do it with a red marker in one hand.
Scalf, 54, a Cary native who played at UNCW, remembers the growing pains all too well.
“There were a lot of times when we wondered how the heck we were going to put a team together,” he said this week. “We had 100 kids at fall tryouts. Of course 90 of them couldn’t play.”
He paused, allowing a brief chuckle.
“It’s been a process,” Scalf said. “An extremely gradual process.”
A rewarding one, too, for all parties responsible.
Seahawk to the core
It started, as most startups do, with equal parts blueprint, blue collar and blind faith.
The Seahawks were a junior college juggernaut under Bill Brooks and just as successful as an NAIA program, winning more than 70 percent of their games at both levels. In 1977, they moved to Division I, in name only.
That’s when Scalf entered the program, a sure-handed, light-hitting second baseman from Cary High, a dirt-dog decades before the Boston Red Sox made the term popular.
Scalf played four years for the Seahawks. He didn’t homer once, and they won just eight games his senior season, in 1980. Soon after his college career ended, he participated in a major league tryout camp, not so much to impress the Kansas City Royals, but more to experience the process. He knew then he wanted to coach.
“Mark will tell you, he was not the most gifted athlete,” said Bobby Guthrie, Brooks’ assistant who took the reins in 1984. He brought Scalf back as an assistant, led the Seahawks to two regular-season conference titles and handed the program to Scalf in 1992. “But he would lie down in front of a ground ball if he had to. That ball was not going to get by him.
“He wasn’t our best player, but he certainly was recognized by everybody as a leader on the team, and he wanted to know everything he could about baseball.”
Guthrie knew Scalf would be an ideal fit to replace him, and campaigned for it. He also knew Scalf knew exactly what he was inheriting.
“Mark was a diehard UNCW alum. You knew he was going to give it every bit of his ability,” Guthrie said. “We were in the process of building it, but we really didn’t have Division I money. About every three or four years we could put together a pretty dog-gone good team, but once that group of seniors left, it was hard to replace.”
“Mark and I were teaching two or three classes a semester; that’s how you made your salary. It wasn’t like we made a whole lot from coaching.
“I had put everything I had into it, and I didn’t really see any daylight. What Mark has done, taking an underfunded Division I program and making them into a power – especially in this state and the southeast – it’s unbelievable.”
What Scalf has done is make baseball the university’s flagship program, one fans tweet about with the hashtag #Omahawks. He has done it by grinding out one win at a time, all the way to 727 and counting. It’s a figure so startling that, when asked whether he envisioned all that would come after he left, Guthrie said, “No way. No way.”
The pride in Guthrie’s voice is unmistakable.
There still are some obstacles, most notably that the Seahawks can’t afford to offer the NCAA-allowed 11.7 scholarships. But players no longer dress in the makeshift shed/locker room across the street from Brooks Field. Scalf and his assistants have their own office, too.
Aside from trophies, Fisher Field House might be the most tangible evidence of how much the program has grown since Scalf arrived on campus in the fall of 1976.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Scalf said. “I played here. My wife is from around here (Whiteville). We love it here. There’s never been a real huge want or need for me to leave.
“It seems like a long time ago, but in 2000, 2001, things really started moving in the right direction. We were close (to making the NCAA tournament) in 2001, 2002, had another solid year in 2003. The school has made more of a commitment. Since that time, it’s been a lot of good years.”
Scalf paused again. It’s his nature: careful, calculated.
“We’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore,” he said. “That ended awhile ago.”
The Interstate 40 portion connecting Wilmington to the world took almost a decade to build. The project was completed in 1990.
Scalf’s project took considerably longer, but now, at least, the Road to Omaha exists.