Photo courtesy of Alyson Boyer Rode

An interesting look at the sports event industry in Greater Raleigh, N.C. 

Ten years ago, Division II college baseball teams did not refer to their postseason path as “the road to Cary.”

Today, Cary signifies that tournament’s ultimate destination, a field of dreams where champions are crowned, memories made and competitive and professional relationships rekindled.

Cary, and specifically the USA Baseball National Training Complex, is hosting the NCAA Baseball Division II World Series for the 10th time in the past 11 years, starting Sat., June 1. Only a decision to move the championship because of HB2 legislation has kept Cary from piling up an 11-year streak of tournament memories.

The championship, which brings together eight super regional winners, similar to the Division I College World Series each June in Omaha, Neb., is in Cary until 2022. The Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance and the Town of Cary, along with host institution the University of Mount Olive, hope to keep the event here indefinitely and long-term, and certainly through 2026, the end date of the upcoming bid cycle.

In short, they want Cary to become as synonymous with the Division II World Series as Omaha is with the College World Series. Teams referring to “the road to Cary,” which one town official recalls hearing as early as 2012, mean that the locale already has become ingrained as the championship site.

2011 NCAA Division II Baseball entrance

Teams, fans and NCAA staff receive a warm welcome in Cary each year

“I think we are slowly but surely becoming the Omaha of Division II baseball,” said Chris Duty, the tournament’s co-director and the Town of Cary’s sports venue coordinator.

Jeff Eisen, Mount Olive’s vice president for athletics, said his school was happy to be associated with such a first-class event. He was the athletic director when Mount Olive won the Division II title in 2008 (finishing the season with a mind-boggling record of 58-6), and then part of the group that bid for subsequent tournaments. Longevity is part of the plan in hosting the event and trying to make small improvements each year.

“That’s kind of been in our mind: Obviously Division I has been in Omaha for many years, and we’d like Cary to be that for Division II,” he said. “Year after year, you know where it’s at, you know the quality experience you’re going to get when you’re there and really to have that continuing tradition like they’ve done in Omaha. I think we’ve been able to achieve that already in the 10- to 11-year period. I really don’t see it ending anytime soon.”

The sentiment of attendees seems to confirm Cary as the place that wants the tournament and the place the tournament would like to call home.

In 2013, tournament committee chairman Jim Givens said this: “For the past five years, I have continued to be amazed at how efficient, organized and hospitable you have all been. It is quite obvious this is an important event for the entire area, and the growing support from the local communities is solid evidence.”

Last year, when the Division II World Series returned to Cary after a one-year break, committee chairman Mark Clements told The North State Journal: “I can say being here in Cary is like heaven. It’s coming home. I'm not a big social media guy, but my post on Fri. when we got here was, ‘We’re back where we belong, where people know your name and care about this event.’”

The University of Montevallo baseball team, at the start of the 2018 season, knew all about Cary and the USA Baseball Complex. It was so important to the Falcons that pictures of the stadium and fields were plastered in the Montevallo locker room in the early part of the year, a sign of the team’s focus on making it to the final eight.

University of Montevallo Baseball Locker Room

Images of USA Baseball's National Training Complex served as motivation for "The Road to Cary"
Photo courtesy of University of Montevallo Baseball

Coaches, NCAA committee members and others have praised the tournament hosts for several reasons, including the venue itself, the overall organization of the event and, perhaps most memorable, the warm welcome they receive from hotels, restaurants, and volunteers. From the time teams step off a plane or bus, they are treated well.

Scott Dupree, the executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance (GRSA), echoed the thoughts of the other host partners, who have emphasized making the event a little bit better every year. Maybe it’s the addition of snacks in the dugout or signs in the host hotels. Eisen said it’s great to have consistency in working together—he, Duty, Dupree and the GRSA’s Tori Collins have spearheaded the Cary bid from the outset—but it’s also a group that has avoided complacency.

“We all have the same desire in thinking, ‘What can we do better, what can we do different?’” Eisen said. “How can we improve what the championship will be like? It’s great to have that mentality, that consistency, but also that willingness to change and constantly review what we do.

“It gives us satisfaction to put on a great tournament.”

The teams may lack the power pitching depth of their Division I counterparts, but just about everything else about the tournament competition would satisfy baseball fans who might not have seen a Division II game.

“If you’re a baseball purist, you need to go check it out,” said Dupree, a baseball aficionado himself. The fit feels like a perfectly broken-in glove to Dupree. “The setting and the stadium field are just pristine,” he said. “It is a major league-caliber setting for the players.”

The teams love the stadium and on-site practice fields, something Eisen has taken notice of over the years. When they arrive for the first time, they begin to soak up championship moments well before they take the field.

“When they come in for the first time, they start taking pictures, videos, whatever,” Eisen said. “We try to make it a championship experience with the signage. The hotels participate, giving personal attention to the teams. It’s a combination of things, all of which lead to a feeling of a championship experience. It’s something that teams will remember win or lose. It’s really become a goal for them, a destination.”

2011 NCAA Division II Baseball Championship