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June 17, 2011

Groomed for college athletics

Junior catcher Jacob Stallings was born to college athletics, so it should be no surprise he is one of the cornerstones for the North Carolina baseball team.

Stallings and his Carolina teammates (50-14) will open the 2011 College World Series in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday at 2 p.m. EDT against Southeastern Conference opponent Vanderbilt (52-10), his father's school.

Stallings' father, Kevin Stallings, was an assistant basketball coach to Roy Williams at Kansas, when Jacob was born.

Kevin Stallings left Purdue as an assistant under Gene Keady in 1989 to join Williams at Kansas, the same year Jacob was born. Jacob was born on Dec. 22, soon after basketball season had started.

"My dad was coaching with Roy at Kansas when I was born," Jacob said. "He had a game that night. He came out to balloons on his chair."

Stallings has spent the past 12 seasons as the Commodores' head coach. He and Jacob spent a lot of that time hanging around the baseball facilities at Vanderbilt, helping Jacob develop into a worthy collegiate prospect.

"Growing up," Stallings said, "I was close with the Vanderbilt college baseball coaches, hanging out down there a lot, practicing. My dad and I would go down there and use their cages a lot. It definitely helped me for what was to come here. It helped me deal with a lot of the adversity I have faced and our team has faced.

"Obviously growing up around it, you see just about everything. I've been able to carry some of my dad's teams' experiences over to how to deal with some of these."

Kevin and Jacob grew to be close with Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin. When the time came for Stallings to be recruited, Vanderbilt and Carolina made the final list.

Stallings easily could have stayed home and played with his friends and at the school he had always cheered. Instead, everyone connected with his decision said it would be better for him to attend UNC.

He would be able to get away, make a name for himself and attend another prestigious academic institution that also happened to be in the midst of a run of appearances at the College World Series.

"It was a better situation here," Stallings said. "My dad and Coach Corbin are very close. Coach Corbin actually told me that this was a better situation for me. I was leaning toward here anyway. He looked after me and my best interests. That is one of the reasons why I respect him so much."

Getting recruited is one thing. Performing at the next level is reality.

When Stallings came to Chapel Hill, even he wondered if he was going to be able to hit collegiate pitching. He had always been a good defensive catcher with a strong arm, but hitting college fastballs that run into the 90 miles-per-hour range and breaking balls that snap quickly at the strike zone presented an entirely new challenge.

"As a catcher, he could really catch and throw," Coach Mike Fox said. "He was a good receiver. As catcher, that is really all you look at. If you have a catcher who can really hit and help you offensively, that is just a bonus.

"But being around Jacob, as a coach's son, it didn't take long to know he that 'It Factor,'" Fox said. "He's going to be able to look at himself in the mirror and realize 'I'm not very good offensively; I need to get bigger and stronger.'"

Stallings' honesty seeps through in speaking with him. He is a young man whose intelligence also shows in conversations.

Reporter: "When I saw you as a freshman, I didn't think you were going to be able to hit college pitching."

Stallings: "Me either."

This year has proven just how far he has come behind the plate and with a bat.

He is among the nation's leaders in throwing out base runners. In the NCAA tournament, he has all but shut down opponents' running games as few even try now.

At the plate, his hits have been frequent and timely - which is one of the critical parts of being a genuine success as a hitter at any level of baseball.

Stallings ended the 2010 season with hits in seven of his last eight games. In eight of the Tar Heels' last nine games entering the College World Series on Saturday, he has a hit. Since May 17, 2011, Stallings is hitting 16-for-43 (.372), with 12 runs, 10 runs batted in and 2 home runs.

He had two crucial hits and three RBI in the Tar Heels' 7-5 series-clinching victory against Stanford last Saturday.

"The main thing I had to improve on was overall strength," Stallings said. "I came in a tall and skinny catcher. I've gotten a lot stronger. That's carried over into my offensive game and my defensive game. Seeing all those studs my freshman year set a good groundwork for me: Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, [catcher] Mark Fleury."

Stallings is a true leader with his smooth communication skills and a quick wit. He uses these attributes to handle the Tar Heels' pitching staff.

Those pitchers and UNC's stellar defense have been the rock on which this team is built. Having one of the nation's top-performing catchers has been a big reason Carolina's pitchers, young and old, are so tough to hit.

"He's such a great receiver," said senior right-hander Patrick Johnson, who will start against Vanderbilt on Saturday. "Friday [against Stanford] he received the ball so well on the corner, I feel like he was able to get me a couple inches off the plate. He knows what I want to throw and the game I want to play.

"He's so steady throughout the game now," Johnson said. "He knows the game so well. He runs our team as the catcher out there."

Stallings' experience and steady demeanor have helped left-hander Kent Emanuel evolve into one of the top pitchers in the nation as a freshman. Emanuel is 2-0 with a 0.64 earned run average in this NCAA Tournament. He will start the second game in Omaha.

"He's been unbelievable," Emanuel said of Stallings. "I can't say enough about him. He helps us through situations. Once we were in a tough spot, and he called a pitch I didn't want to throw.

"I shook it off. He gave it to me again. I shook it off again. He came out to the mound and told me, 'I think this is the pitch you need to throw to this guy.'

"I went with it, and we got the guy out."

Emanuel said that Stallings, pitching coach Scott Forbes and he have all gained a mutual trust.

"With Stallings and with Forbes, we have really come together," Emanuel said. "Early in the year, I would be shaking off pitches a couple times an inning. Now I'm shaking only a couple of times a game."

Stallings smiles and says it doesn't have to have some connections at Carolina.

"Roy has known me my whole life," Stallings said. "I guess I don't really remember him my whole life.

"I talk to Roy a lot," Stallings said, smiling. "I saw him in the stands [during the tournament]. He is obviously excited and cheering us on. It's good to know a guy like that here. He's got some pull."



 

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