By Turner Walston
When they refer to student-athletes enrolling a semester early, in January as opposed to August, coaches often rely on an old chestnut: he or she ought to be back in high school, getting ready for the prom. And yet, here they are, a year younger than their teammates, producing at the college level.
Carolina baseball freshman Ashton McGee is one such early enrollee. Heading into his fall semester at Charles B. Aycock High School in Pikeville, McGee knew enrolling early at Carolina was a possibility, so he took the two classes he needed to graduate. In early December, he filed his graduation paperwork.
McGee played at Charles B. Aycock for Charles Davis, who himself played for Tar Heel head coach Mike Fox at North Carolina Wesleyan. Davis has helped develop many Division I baseball players, including former Tar Heels Rob Wooten and Garrett Davis and current senior Adam Pate. "Would I have loved to have had him this year? Yes," Charles Davis said of McGee. "But Ashton was ready for that level. Physically, mentally, emotionally, he is mature beyond his years. After talking with Coach Fox, I felt like he would have a shot. When I talked with Ashton, I told him the same thing. I said, 'You're ready. I would love to have you, of course, but you're ready to go play at that next level.'"
And so McGee made his way to Chapel Hill. Fox is not going to promise any recruit playing time, even if that player is coming to campus early. But McGee has earned every at-bat, every time his name is written in the lineup. He's proven that Davis was right: he was ready.
"There was no guarantee, and I said the same thing to Levi Michael way back when," Fox said, referring to the middle infielder who enrolled in 2009 and helped the Tar Heels to a pair of College World Series appearances before becoming a first-round pick in 2011. "However, I wouldn't be asking a player to miss his senior year in high school, which I think is an unbelievably special time, if I didn't think he was going to come in here and get on the field for us. How much and where, I didn't know, but fortunately he trusted himself and his family, and he trusted us, and he did enough academically to be able to do it."
The Diamond Heels' season began on February 17 with a series against Kentucky. McGee did not appear in a game that weekend. But the following Wednesday against Gardner-Webb, he pinch-hit for designated hitter Tyler Lynn. In his first at-bat, McGee struck out swinging on a 3-2 pitch. Two innings later, however, he ripped a double down the left field line on the first pitch he saw, eventually coming around to score on a sacrifice fly. That was a Wednesday in late February. McGee's debut in a ten-run midweek win was probably overlooked, as later that night, the men's basketball Tar Heels scored a home win over Louisville. But up the hill, the 18 year-old should-have-been-a-high-school senior had stepped into the batter's box and into the lineup of one of the nation's best baseball teams.
Three months later, as Carolina prepares to begin NCAA Tournament play in the Chapel Hill Regional on Friday, McGee is entrenched as the Tar Heels' designated hitter and occasional second baseman. As the third hitter in the lineup, McGee leads the team in on-base percentage and is second in both batting average and slugging.
"It's amazing," Fox said. "He started classes January 11 and had five weeks to prepare for Division I baseball, and he's hitting for us in the three hole. He could be hitting anywhere for us."
McGee, who turned 18 in November, brings a confidence to the batter's box that belies his years. He knows he belongs, and he proves it by his production. "You have to have that confidence, really," he said. "That's half the battle, stepping in the box believing, knowing you're better than the pitcher. If you go in there thinking that you shouldn't be here, then you're not going to have any success."
Fox said McGee's coaches and teammates admire his even keel, his ability to put bad at-bats behind him and to step in with new resolve. "You look at Ashton McGee every single day and you can't tell if he's playing well or not, made an error, made a home run, struck out. You go look at him and you cannot tell," Fox said. "That's a trait that a lot of players don't have, but he has it. And usually if it's like that on their face, you feel like that inside. He's just got that calmness. Somebody taught him really well. I'd like to think it was Charles Davis at C.B. Aycock, a former player of mine who I'm sure had a lot to do with that, but I think his family had a lot to do with that as well."
That demeanor will serve McGee and the Tar Heels well as they gear up to make a run at Omaha. With McGee hitting third and Pate the senior leader –in fact the only Diamond Heel with NCAA Tournament experience– the Carolina dugout has a distinct Aycock flair. "Adam's got one goal in mind, and that's to go to the College World Series," Davis said. "Most of the time, great players are forgotten, but great teammates never are, and Adam's a prime example of that. He's a born leader. He puts the team first, and the individual stuff will follow after that."
Pate's friendship and counsel has helped McGee adjust to college life on and off the field. McGee did in fact miss his senior prom: while his Aycock classmates danced the night away at Walnut Creek Country Club in Goldsboro, he was hitting 4-12 with four runs scored and three runs batted in during a series sweep at Boston College.
His ability to clear the fences –he has seven home runs on the year– and find gaps in the outfield have earned McGee the nickname 'Mashton.' But he's disciplined at the plate, too, taking a measured approach that has him tied for the team lead with 34 walks drawn. "We just talk about the three baseballs," he said. "You have the three baseballs in the middle of the plate and you just look for those pitches. If it's not there, if there's nothing you can drive, then you don't swing."
Just as he steps to the plate literally this spring, McGee stepped up to the plate figuratively when he decided to enroll early. And the result has been a home run.
"He's got a gift," Davis said. "And what better chance to go play for a top-notch program as really, a high school senior? That's an opportunity you can't pass up."
For McGee, and for Mike Fox and the Tar Heels.