By Dennis Garcia
Copperheads General Manager
The University of North Carolina has one of the most proudest baseball traditions in the country.
The Tar Heels have advanced to the College World Series 11 times since 1960, including four straight seasons at one point, finishing as runners-up in 2006 and 2007. They have won 13 regional championships and made 32 NCAA Tournament appearances.
Among the former Tar Heels now playing in Major League Baseball are Kyle Seager, Brian Goodwin, Trent Thornton, Daniel Bard, Colin Moran, Chris Iannetta and Andrew Miller.
The Tar Heels have quite a tradition and hoping to help UNC maintain that tradition is a trio of players who will be playing for the Asheboro Copperheads this coming summer. Sophomore infielder Patrick Alvarez, who started 15 games as a freshman, freshman infielder Hunter Stokely and freshman hurler Cannon Pickell will all be wearing Copperheads colors this summer as the local Coastal Plain League team vies for a championship.
“We are very enthusiastic about these three talented players signing to play with us in 2021,” Copperheads head coach and General Manager Keith Ritsche said.
All could have an enormous impact on the Copperheads, who will begin play in late May.
Pickell is a 6-2, 215-pound right-hander who comes to the Tar Heels after an outstanding prep career at Currituck County High School. There, he threw 78 ⅔ innings, allowing just 27 hits and 10 earned runs for a 0.88 ERA.
He had great success in the Tar Heels’ Fall World Series, throwing two shutout innings for the Navy team, which won all five games against the Blue team.
“It was definitely fun, everyone on the team is good,” Pickell said. “Being able to face those hitters and get ready for the spring will be helpful.”
Pickell, who verbally committed to N.C. State as a sophomore in high school but switched because “I always wanted to go to Carolina and may have committed too soon,” relies on a fastball that runs between 92-94 mph. He said he is working hard to refine his offspeed pitches.
” On the mound, Pickell has enormous upside with great velocity for a freshman,” Ritsche said. “A combination of his developing secondary pitches mixed with his velocity and command should help him produce many swings and misses from our opponents next summer.”
Like most, Pickell said he is anxious for the spring season to begin and then experience summer baseball in Asheboro.
“I have been waiting a long time,” said Pickell, who had his senior year in high school cut short because of Covid-19. “It’s been last fall since I have been on the field consistently. I’m looking forward to the spring.
“And in the summer, I want to face the best hitters I can and I know the Coastal Plain League has great hitters,” added Pickell, who is studying Exercise and Sports Science. “I am looking forward to playing with and against some great players.”
He’s already playing with a number of potentially great players, including Alvarez, who will travel to Asheboro with him this summer. Alvarez started 15 games last year for the Tar Heels and competed in 18 as a true freshman.
“Alvarez was able to get some quality playing time as a true freshman dur ing the shortened 2020 season and is expected to be a solid contributor again in the spring for the Tar Heels,” Ritsche said. “His experience at both third and second should provide us some great leadership in the infield.”
Alvarez hit .213 for UNC before the season was halted by the coronavirus. He scored six runs, had two doubles, one home run and nine RBIs. He also walked five times.
“I have always been a huge Tar Heel fan, my dad went there,” Alvarez said. “You have some expectations about how opening day will be, but you get out there and see all the fans and you see all the hard work is beginning to pay off. It was awesome.”
Alvarez said there has been a little bit of a different feel this year after Scott Forbes took over for legendary Tar Heel mentor Mike Fox.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of changes, but it’s been more competitive,” Alvarez said. “Coach Forbes has made it clear that nobody deserves anything and you have to work to get it.”
Alvarez was a 2019 All-State selection after helping Myers Park to a 25-2 record. He earned multiple honors with Perfect Game, including being named to the All-Regional Team in 2019. He can play multiple positions on the infield and at 5-7, he has already proved doubters wrong.
“It gives me a bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Alvarez said about people telling him he was too short to play third for a Division I program. “I’ve heard it all my life. I think it makes me more of a complete player not going up there trying to pop one out every time.”
Alvarez said he is looking forward to playing summer ball for the first time. He was scheduled to play in Holly Springs last year for the Salamanders, but like the Copperheads, Holly Springs cancelled its season because of the virus.
“I want to have fun and get better,” he said. “It’s a chance to play with guys from all over the country, which is going to be a cool experience. It will help me get prepared.”
Stokely is a big left-handed hitter (6-3, 220) who graduated from Fike High School in Wilson. He missed two of his four-year high school career; missing his entire sophomore season because of an injury and having his senior campaign stopped after just five games because of the virus.
“It’s been pretty good to play baseball every day,” said Stokely, who added he always wanted to go to UNC and follow in the footsteps of his cousin Chad Flack. “It feels great to go out and play baseball every day again.”
Stokely, who dislocated his knee during his sophomore year at Fike, is quite versatile having played first as well as being counted on to pitch and catch. He was named to the All-State Team after his junior campaign at Fike.
After participating in UNC’s Fall World Series, Stokely is back home.
“I’m working out every day and taking ground balls,” Stokely said. “It was a little difficult for me at first (at UNC). I’m feeling more comfortable but still working.”
All three continue to work hard in order to keep the Tar Heels’ tradition at a high level and then give the Copperheads the pieces needed to have a successful season.