As a sports junkie growing up in Virginia, Garrett Cortright heard all about the University of North Carolina. His attraction to its athletic program was a familiar one. He was about 8 years old when he started following the Tar Heels in basketball, and his passion for Carolina blue extended to all sports.
Cortright knew absolutely nothing about Canisius College when his family moved to Hamburg when he was in high school. He was a skinny, 16-year-old sophomore who was a reserve the previous year in Virginia when he showed up at Frontier High in 2007. He found a place on Frontier’s varsity because he threw hard, and he threw strikes.
Let’s not kid ourselves about baseball in the South any more than southern kids should fool themselves about hockey in the North. It’s a different game at the high school level. But it doesn’t mean our kids can’t play baseball or their kids can’t play hockey. If you can play, you can play; someone just has to take notice.
Cortright was a first-team All-Western New York player as a junior and made the second team as a senior, yet he was barely on the radar of Division I colleges when Canisius coach Mike McRae expressed interest. McRae offered him a scholarship, and Cortright jumped at one of the few opportunities available.
“Canisius is an absolutely phenomenal school,” Cortright said. “Coach McRae is one of the most knowledgeable baseball coaches I have ever known. He’s just like the big dogs of baseball. He knows baseball. He knows how to teach it at the highest level. I’m completely satisfied with Canisius.
“We’ll play big schools early in the season and compete. We’re just as fundamentally sound as some of these big schools that can bring it. I love that about Canisius. They’ll take us for granted thinking they’re absolutely going to stomp us. No. We come to play and bring everything we have.”
Cortright is now a 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior with a four-pitch arsenal. His fastball runs in the 88-92 mph range and it’s more effective when mixed with his change-up. He had an 11-3 record with a 2.24 ERA and five complete games over 15 starts this season. He threw a one-hitter in a win over Marist in the MAAC tournament. He’s one of only four pitchers in the country with 11 wins, 105 innings pitched and an ERA better than 2.50.
He’s had a terrific year by any standard.
North Carolina has pitchers like him who barely touch the field. Last week, the Tar Heels rolled out 6-8, 270-pound freshman Taylore Cherry for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Virginia Tech. Cherry throws in the mid-90 mph range. He threw more pitches in the championship game than he had in his first five appearances combined.
Obviously, beating North Carolina in the NCAA baseball tournament Friday night will be a tall order for the Griffs. I’m guessing half of the players at Carolina have never heard of Canisius, and fewer could pronounce it. Carolina has been a superpower for years and is the top-seeded team in the country.
The divide between UNC and Canisius in baseball is similar to that in basketball, but pitching is the great equalizer. Canisius could play 100 basketball games against Carolina and lose all of them, but that wouldn’t be the case in baseball. Any team can win on a given day in baseball if its pitcher throws a great game.
Canisius beating Carolina is a long shot, definitely, but it’s not entirely absurd. It starts with the tall, obscure right-hander on the mound.
“I thought about ‘what if?’ but there is no ‘what if?’ ” Cortright said. “We’re coming out to play. You see it all the time. You run into a good pitcher and great defense making phenomenal plays. Baseball works the way hockey works. You can’t say that about any other sports. You run into a goalie the way you run into a pitcher. Anyone can win.”
And that’s what has Cortright so excited about taking the mound Friday for the opener at Boshamer Stadium. He’s a North Carolina fan but has never faced a team with its resources and charming campus. He watched the Tar Heels play on television. Canisius is guaranteed a great experience, and great exposure, regardless of the outcome.
The challenge is daunting. UNC played the top teams all season and had a 52-8 record.
It won the ACConference, which had three teams ranked among the top five nationally and seven in the top 20. It’s an enviable program, but the Griffs aren’t going to Chapel Hill because they admire Carolina.
Nobody is getting Marist confused with Virginia, but Canisius didn’t win a school-record 42 games by accident, either.
The Griffs are the only team in the Northeast region that has won 33 games in five of the last six seasons. Last year, Stony Brook won the America East Conference title and ended up in the College World Series.
On a given day, it can happen.
The Griffs are hoping to put together a solid game against a team that could be looking past them. You couldn’t blame UNC, either. The Heels were forced to play extra innings in back-to-back games before handling Virginia Tech in the conference final. Carolina believes it can make history this season.
This is difficult to fathom, but a team from the ACC hasn’t won a College World Series since 1955. Carolina has reached the CWS nine times without winning a title.
You can understand why North Carolina would be more worried about South Carolina or Clemson than a Canisius team making its first NCAA baseball tourney appearance.
By the way, the Heels will have one fewer fan pulling for them.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Cortright said. “We can’t wait to go down there and play. It will be fun. I’m not going to be asking them for their autograph. I’ll be trying to strike them out. They’ll be my rival on Friday.”