Duke baseball: Pollard, Blue Devils debut at Florida Friday night
Chris Pollard sought and received the chance to turn around a Duke baseball program with one of the ugliest on-field histories in the nation.
The Blue Devils haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 1961. They’ve only qualified for the eight-team ACC Tournament once in the last seven years.
The 38-year-old Pollard, though, sees opportunity in his first ACC coaching opportunity. He’s selling that to recruits as he tries to turn Duke’s baseball fortunes around.
“The one thing that we’ve tried to focus on when we talk to guys is, there’s opportunity,” Pollard said. “You’ve got a Duke degree. You’ve got ACC baseball. And you’ve got the opportunity, if you look at our program, to come in and compete for a job early in your career. Rather than shy away from the fact that we’ve struggled the last couple of years we need to embrace that. Within that lies opportunity.”
Pollard, who left Appalachian State to replace Sean McNally as Duke’s coach in June, begins his first season with the Blue Devils at 7 tonight as Duke opens a three-game series at Florida.
The Gators won 47 games last season, played in the College World Series and are ranked No 17 in Baseball America’s preseason poll.
That’s a long way from where Pollard’s Blue Devils find themselves. Duke went 21-34 last season even though it had Marcus Stroman, drafted in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays in June, heading its pitching rotation.
But Pollard has a plan and an impressive track record.
A former pitcher at Davidson, Pollard built Appalachian State into the Southern Conference’s top team last season. He was named Southern Conference coach of the year for leading the Mountaineers to a 41-18 record, the program’s first Southern Conference regular-season championship since 1987 and an NCAA Tournament berth.
His first season at Appalachian State, the Mountaineers won 10 games. Over his final six seasons, they never won fewer than 32.
Getting Duke to that level, he said, means starting at the most basic level.
“Be better than you were the day before,” Pollard said. “We focus on trying to win today and not focus on tomorrow until today is over with. Our guys have done a good job of adopting that philosophy.”
Pollard and his staff began working with the players Aug. 27. He said improvement is apparent as he seeks to strengthen Duke’s fundamental play.
“We recognize with this club we are going to play, to us the cliché, a lot of small baseball,” Pollard said. “We have to be fundamentally sound on the bases. Fundamentally sound in the small-ball game. We have to be able to execute (the) hit-and-run, (be) able to execute the bunt and things to move runners along. We are going to look for every opportunity to take an extra base.”
Junior third baseman Jordan Betts said the team is comfortable with Pollard’s approach.
“Overall everybody is happy,” Betts said. “We have a good vibe. Coach talks about winning every day. I think we’ve all bought into that. I think you learn to win.”
The NCAA’s rules adjustment over the last two seasons to bats that aren’t as lively means fundamental baseball is a necessity even for power-laden teams. The idea of playing for three-run home runs is on the wane.
Pollard said his Appalachian State teams slowly made the adjustments and were adept at it last season.
His long-term goal, of course, is to get the Blue Devils to respond so they can get where the Mountaineers were last season — in the NCAA Tournament.
Senior Jeff Kremer, Duke’s primary designated hitter last season, said Pollard has made a strong impression. Pollard, Kremer said, knows how to bring a team together to inspire them to big things and also knows when to coach them hard when things aren’t going right.
“He knows when to sit there and tell you when you did something well,” Kremer said. “He knows when to tell you when you did something wrong. He’s not afraid to do either one.”
From giving an inspirational speech at a team dinner to verbally jumping on the team hard in practice for mistakes, Pollard is showing the ability to motivate, Kremer said.
“Some of the guys needed to be scared and he did it,” Kremer said. “I think that’s what sets him apart as a coach is having the carrot and the stick.”