How this small school ended up with 2 elite Draft prospects

July 2nd, 2022
Campbell Athletics

Few college baseball fans, let alone that many North Carolinians, can find Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., on a map.

The small town, located south of Raleigh, has a population of just about 3,000, after all. And although the Camels have produced two current big leaguers in Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins and Rays reliever Ryan Thompson, it’s not widely known as a baseball hotbed.

Even then, Campbell has established itself as one of the nation’s premier mid-major programs, relying on a collection of overlooked recruits and junior college transfers to make four straight NCAA Regionals. Given that success, it’s easy to understand why the Camels feel a bit slighted. It also makes sense why they jokingly call themselves “a bunch of nobodies from nowhere.”

As much of a rallying cry as that’s been -- with the team going as far as writing “Nobodies” in big black letters on a piece of cardboard that hung in the dugout this season -- it’s set to expire next month, when Zach Neto and Thomas Harrington officially put Campbell on the map.

Ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Nos. 17 and 44 prospects in the 2022 MLB Draft, Neto -- a shortstop -- and Harrington -- a right-handed pitcher -- are looking to become the two highest Draft picks in school history. Thanks to them, Campbell has joined five much larger and more heralded programs (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, Oregon State and Tennessee) as the only other colleges with multiple prospects ranked in MLB Pipeline’s Top 50. But their selections will mean that much more, not just for them but for a program that saw something in them when few did.

“We're like a kid in a candy store, man,” Campbell head coach Justin Haire said. “Everybody comes to college baseball with the hope and dream to be able to play professionally, and we all know that the percentage of that is so small. So, to have two guys who are such good people, who come from such good families, who love our program as much as they do and have represented it so well, to hopefully have these opportunities, it's like a dream come true.”

But it’s not something either player envisioned.

Like most people, Neto never heard of Campbell until the summer before his senior year of high school, when the coaches reached out to him after seeing him at a showcase at Wake Forest. The Miami native -- who received little interest from schools in his home state -- impressed as a left-side infielder with solid bat speed and as a pitcher with an 89 mph fastball and a slider. Haire, meanwhile, wowed Neto with his honesty and his vision for the program -- and for Neto.

Although they weren’t sure which position Neto would play, Haire and his staff thought he could develop into a top-10-round pick. That belief never changed, even though it easily could have.

Upon enrolling at Campbell in the fall of 2019, Neto admits he tried doing too much. That was no more evident than in the last game of the team’s Fall World Series, when Haire said he made six errors. While that experience taught Neto a valuable lesson -- and led him to adopt his motto, “Don’t think, have fun,” which is inscribed on the inside of his cap -- he didn’t get much of a chance to prove that it did as a wrist injury limited him to just three games in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, it gave Neto time to recover. Once healthy, he joined the Delray Beach Lightning of the South Florida Collegiate Baseball League and put together one of the best summers in league history, slashing .439/.537/.765 with six homers, 32 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 40 games en route to being named the Offensive Player of the Year.

“For us as a staff,” Haire said, “him having that great summer gave us some confidence like, 'Hey, man, it's just a matter of time before he figures it out at this level.’”

Campbell Athletics

Success didn’t come immediately for Neto in his second season at Campbell. But after battling through an early-season pinky injury, he took off, finishing the year hitting .405/.488/.746 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. He also made 11 pitching appearances, going 4-0 with a 3.43 ERA, and started games at all four infield spots to earn Big South Player of the Year honors.

Naturally, given the level of competition he faced, some questioned how he might do against better pitching as he prepared to report to the Cape Cod League that summer. As if that didn’t put a massive chip on his shoulder, the Cotuit Kettleers released him just before the season started; he later signed with the Brewster Whitecaps after a one-game cameo in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

“When I made my way back,” Neto said, “it was like, 'Man, I can't give up my second chance. I need to do anything I can to just go out there and just show who I am.’”

He did that and more.

Neto cemented himself as one of the Cape’s top prospects before an ankle injury sidelined him for the final three weeks of the regular season. While most players would’ve called it a summer after such an injury, he returned for the playoffs and helped lead the Whitecaps to the championship. In the process, he played himself into position to be a first-round pick, batting .304/.439/.587 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 16 games.

Neto’s performance sent scouts flocking to Campbell last fall. Once there, they not only got a closer look at him but an arm on the rise.

Growing up in Sanford, about 30 minutes west of Buies Creek, Harrington pitched occasionally, but said he came to the field “to play short and hit some bombs.” That mindset, however, started to shift his junior year of high school, when his new head coach encouraged Harrington -- who doubled as the starting quarterback for the football team -- to pitch full-time. The results were immediate: Harrington went 4-0 with a 0.32 ERA while striking out 54 and giving up only 18 hits in 43 2/3 innings. But it wasn’t until that summer that colleges began showing interest.

Haire and his staff saw Harrington pitch a few times around then, and although his velocity was inconsistent -- his fastball would sit around 80-82 mph one day and 84-86 another -- Harrington intrigued with his clean mechanics and athleticism. That led to him earning a walk-on spot with the Camels, which he accepted over scholarship offers from other mid-majors.

Campbell Athletics

At the time of his commitment, Campbell planned to redshirt Harrington his freshman year so he could bulk up and get on a throwing program. But with his high school senior season cut short by the pandemic, he got a jump-start on his development, dedicating his time in lockdown to adding muscle and transforming his slurve into two distinct breaking balls. That continued into the fall, in which he pitched well in limited action. He then took a significant leap over winter break.

"He came back in the early spring and in the preseason intrasquads was like 90-92 and a ton of strikes,” Haire said. “And we're like, ‘Yeah, I don't know if we're gonna be able to redshirt you.’”

Harrington ultimately opened the year as the Camels’ Sunday starter, allowing one run over five innings in his debut against Liberty. That proved to be just a glimpse of what was to come: He went on to record a 3.45 ERA in 75 2/3 innings, mostly as the Friday starter.

As extraordinary as he was all season in becoming Big South Freshman of the Year, Harrington’s best performance came on the biggest stage, when he held eventual College World Series champion Mississippi State to one run in five innings of relief in the Starkville Regional. That outing, as much as any, landed him on scouts' radars. And with it came the realization, both for him and Haire, that his time in Buies Creek might be shorter than expected.

“After last year, I was like, 'Man, I might have a shot to play after college,’” said Harrington, who, despite playing only two years in college, is Draft-eligible because he turns 21 five days before the Draft. “So, yeah, it was a little bit surprising to me, but I guess the surprising aspect became reality pretty quick.”

The first time Harrington took the mound last fall, a large contingent of scouts filled the seats behind home plate. The righty called the moment “pretty eye-opening,” but said it didn’t take long to adjust. The same, however, can’t be said of Neto, who felt pressure to perform.

Neto said his coaches played a major role in helping him relax. But so did Harrington.

"It's awesome having a guy like Tom, especially where he's at right now. … He really doesn't think about [the Draft],” Neto said. “I get to talk to him a lot because we're going along in the same direction. We have a bunch of similar questions asked by fans or just MLB teams. So, we're like, 'Oh, man, did you get a call from this team?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And he'll tell me the same thing. So, it's a good conversation.”

It’s also been quality competition.

To this day, Harrington said Neto reminds him that he didn’t strike him out last fall, to which Harrington responds by saying, “It doesn't matter if you strike out or hit a popup.” Neto said similar exchanges have been common in intrasquads and in the weight room, where he and Harrington have been rack partners.

Campbell Athletics

“In the fall, we lifted together three times a week, and it's nice being able to have someone like him to push you to be your best,” said Harrington, who says he weighed 167 pounds when he arrived at Campbell and is now between 185 and 190. “I push him, as well. So, it's great, just being able to lean on each other.”

In doing so, both Neto and Harrington delivered their best seasons yet this spring, with the former slashing .407/.514/.769 with 15 homers, 50 RBIs and 39 walks compared to only 19 strikeouts and the latter going 12-2 with a 2.53 ERA and a sparkling 111:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 2/3 innings. Haire praised both players for their ability to block out the distractions that come with being highly touted prospects -- including the 50-plus scouts in attendance for Harrington’s start in May’s Big South tournament. But with the Draft nearing, the spotlight is shining brighter than ever.

If Neto or Harrington -- perhaps even both -- are selected before the 40th pick, they’ll become the highest-drafted player in Campbell history. That distinction currently belongs to the Rays’ No. 7 prospect, Seth Johnson, whom Tampa Bay took in the Competitive Balance B round in 2019.

“It'll be an honor to see Tommy's name get called either before mine or after mine and just show how good this program's been over the years and the players it's producing as well as the next years to come,” Neto said. “It's definitely going to be an exciting moment, for sure.”

One nobody in Buies Creek will forget.