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The Daily Tar Heel

A Cut Above the Rest? 2 Try to Make Squad

The pleas were cautious and continuous.

Mike Cooke didn't want to be singled out; he didn't want to be the focal point. Nor did Philip Griffin. They just wanted to fit in, to be like the rest of the guys.

They didn't want the rest of the North Carolina baseball team to resent the attention they - the squad's two new walk-ons - were receiving.

After all, that late September day was just their first practice. Their futures with the team were yet unknown, and the two wanted to avoid being the story.

Despite their modesty, Cooke and Griffin are the story. Theirs is a tale of hope, of uncertainty and most of all, of determination. Although the two never knew if or when their attempts to become varsity athletes would end, Cooke and Griffin plugged along, continuing to work and learn within the structure of Coach Mike Fox's fall practices.

This is that story. Their fates are now decided, and the duo is far removed from that Sept. 27 practice - a day when all was strange and new, when the odyssey was just beginning.

Field of Dreams

It started the night before on a cool, dew-laden Tuesday at Boshamer Stadium.

Thirteen would-be varsity athletes stood on the field's foul territory, stretching and getting ready for possibly the only chance they would have to be members of UNC's baseball team.

There was little talk among the group. After all, a walk-on tryout probably isn't the best place to try to make new friends.

Soon the tryout started. After listening to assistant coach Scott Forbes and Fox describe the format of the showcase, the players were in a constant stream of motion for the next 90 minutes.

Those gathered at Boshamer ran the gamut of experience. Some were former junior college players, while others looked as if they would've had a difficult time making Chapel Hill High School's varsity team, let alone the Tar Heel squad.

At the conclusion of the workout, Fox gathered the players around first base for one final talk. A former walk-on himself, Fox informed his intent listeners of the 17 newcomers that were joining the baseball team this season - a number that would make it hard to add many, if any, walk-ons.

"What we're looking for are certain positions," Fox said. "Some of you we could eliminate right off the bat. There's a certain level of talent you have to have. This is a very high level of baseball. The ACC is probably one of the best conferences in the country. Most walk-ons aren't going to make an impact on this program right away."

The listeners knew all of this. They knew their chances to make the team were slim. But after Fox was finished speaking and the tryout was over, being selected was entirely out of their hands.

Fox said he would post the names of those who had made it the next day. Until then, it would be a waiting game for all assembled at the stadium.

Cooke, a freshman from Greensboro, would have to wait. Cooke caught and played second base for Page High School and for a local AAU team. He tried out for UNC's team as a catcher.

Griffin also would have to wait. The freshman center fielder from tiny Jamesville - a community of fewer than 700 people in eastern North Carolina - thought he had played well at the tryout, despite the fact that the cold air had prevented the ball from carrying well.

At Jamesville High School, Griffin played baseball, basketball and football and ran track. The idea of playing just one sport at UNC was too good of an opportunity for Griffin to pass up.

"I'd just like to sit the bench," he said. "It's just the thought of being on the Carolina baseball team. I come from a small school, so ain't nobody ever reached this level."

Little did Griffin know that the next day, he would again be on the Boshamer turf. On Wednesday, "Mike Cooke" and "Philip Griffin" were the only names listed outside of Boshamer's offices.

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The Next Step

It would be easy to lump Cooke and Griffin together and explain their experiences with UNC baseball together. After all, they were both walk-ons, right?

However true that might have been, their situations followed entirely different routes after the initial tryout.

Cooke is a catcher. The Tar Heels needed a new bullpen catcher - the guy who warms up a pitcher before he comes into games - because Nathan Baldwin, who filled that role last year, decided not to play this season.

Therefore, Cooke had basically made the team based on his performance from the first tryout. Griffin's road was not nearly as easy.

"I talked to Mike after the first meeting, and he had already told me right then that he was going to be there in the spring - that they had told him that," Griffin said. "So I knew his role, and I knew it was just going to be an extended tryout for me. They had told me up front that they could drop me at any time."

Despite that insecurity, Griffin played well in his debut with the team. In his first at-bat of the first intrasquad scrimmage, he chopped a low fastball off the plate and beat the pitcher's hesitant throw to first.

Later, Griffin hit an opposite field grass-cutter down the third-base line. Despite his obvious speed, Griffin was gunned down at second while trying to extend the single to a double. Although he was thrown out, Griffin's aggressiveness was a good sign, especially on his first day with the squad.

Griffin's spot on the team wouldn't be decided by one at-bat, though. And so continued his incorporation into the UNC baseball program.

Cooke and Griffin also continued to meet and know their possible teammates. And both would have nothing but good things to say about the rest of the guys.

"They cheer me on, and they talk to me all the time," Griffin said. "They've accepted both of us into the group. All of them come up to me and talk to me and ask me what's up or whatever."

Among that group was Matt Tanner. Tanner, a redshirt-sophomore pitcher, had a special appreciation of the process Cooke and Griffin were going through. Just two years ago, Tanner walked on to the Tar Heel squad.

Tanner remembered well his experience and could empathize with the team's two walk-ons.

"You've been playing sports your whole way through high school, and you don't want it to end right there," Tanner said. "I think for so many athletes who try to walk on to teams, that's what it comes down to.

"I really tried to make an extra effort to talk to these guys, just because I felt like I was the same way. It's nice when someone comes up and asks you your name on the first day."

A Long October

After several weeks of practicing with the team, Cooke and Griffin were called into separate meetings with Fox.

The anticipation of the past couple of weeks had built up. Now they would know their fates.

Or maybe not.

Fox informed them both on Oct. 11 that they would be getting lockers and official team gear. But he also told Griffin that his evaluation period would be extended.

Cooke's excitement was obvious.

"Philip and I are both on the team now," he said. "I'm pretty sure they're going to keep us.

"(Fox) just talked to me straight. We had two catchers leave, and we need someone to fill the role."

While Griffin was happy, his uncertainty was prolonged.

"(Fox) told me he was going to reward me for the good I've been doing in the scrimmages here," Griffin said. "And then he'll get together with the coaches and evaluate me again and see if there's room for me.

"If it ends after two weeks, that'll be all right. If it doesn't end? That'll be great."

It also would mean a new glove for Griffin. The outfielder has had the same all-purpose mitt since eighth grade, and his father had told Philip that he'd get him a new one if he made the squad.

Unfortunately for Griffin, he wouldn't get a glove. The end would come soon.

Decisions, Decisions

Cooke didn't really think anything about Griffin's absence from practice the first couple of days.

"I thought maybe he had a class later or something," Cooke said. "Then I noticed that his stall was empty, and Coach moved me (to Griffin's old stall)."

Griffin had been cut from the team. Although he had played well in the fall season, there wasn't any room for him.

"(Fox) called me in," Griffin said, "and talked about how some new kids were coming in, how he was looking to the future, and how I probably wasn't ever going to be able to improve to the level of play that he was looking for."

Griffin said Fox asked him if he wanted a spot as the Tar Heels' manager. He was skeptical at first, but Griffin said he would seriously consider the offer.

Upon hearing the decision, Griffin maintained the same attitude he'd had throughout the entire process.

"It's not something a whole lot of people are able to do," he said. "I know, especially around my town, there's just a few people who've had at least the opportunity to play. Yeah, I was a little upset when (Fox) told me, but I'm over it now."

Griffin's journey had finally met its end. Cooke's was just beginning.

After the annual intrasquad "World Series," the strength and conditioning portion of the team's year began. Cooke is still experiencing the rigors of a Division I off-season program.

Once, while running stairs at Kenan Stadium, Cooke completed his workout by throwing up in a nearby garbage can.

"One or two (others vomited)," Cooke said. "I was talking to (fellow catcher) Ryan Horney, and he let me know that it was probably going to happen to me - it happens to everybody - and it's pretty normal."

Tanner stressed that the support Cooke has received will continue as he assimilates into the team setting. He also said Cooke shouldn't worry about his likely lack of playing time.

"Sometimes that's not the question," Tanner said. "Just go ahead and have fun with it. So many kids on this campus would love to play baseball or any sport here at the University of North Carolina and say they were on a varsity team."

Baldwin's advice to Cooke was similar, but the ex-Tar Heel - who decided to stop playing in order to devote more time to academics - added a simple caveat.

"Make sure that's what you want to do with this time," Baldwin said.

One of the Guys

Ultimately, Cooke and Griffin did fit into the team setting and filled their roles well during the fall season.

Griffin gave the team an extra center fielder while sophomore starter Adam Greenberg nursed his injured right ring finger. Cooke gave the team a much-needed bullpen catcher.

And they endured more than a month of uncertainty while waiting to find out if they both would be members of the team come springtime.

"I think it takes a lot of courage to come out here and try out," Fox said. "I understand what it takes to come out and get through this. If you get one player, it can help your program. We don't want to keep anyone here who we know won't play.

"As long as I'm coach here, we'll always have tryouts. Because you never know. You never know."

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