The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday December 1st

Versatility, Attitude Separate Maples From Crowd

I ... AM ... NUMBER ONE! No matter if you like it. Ready? Take this down in writing ...

The senior leads the Tar Heels in every power category. In 38 games this season, he's already put up five more homers than he hit in 146 prior games. He's found his way onto Baseball America's Midseason Senior All-America Team. In other words, since the season's started, Maples hasn't missed a beat.

Maples said the improvement came through commitment. Different batting stances, weight training, summers with the Coastal Plain League's Durham Braves all helped.

But above all, it took a position.

Maples played infield his first three years at UNC but, because he has the strongest arm on the squad, he was poised to move to right field this season. A fall shoulder injury to projected third baseman Sammy Hewitt prevented that.

His coaches did find a use for that arm, though.

"This fall, they put me on the mound, and the first time I was out there I hit like 94 (miles per hour)," said Maples, who pitched at Orange High School. "They were like, 'Yeah, we'll kind of take this a little seriously now.'"

So in the fall, Maples was designated the team's closer. With a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider, he was named one of the nation's two most versatile players by Baseball America.

"If you tell him to go play center field, he'll play center field," said infielder Russ Adams, who shared the award with Maples. "If you tell him to catch, he'll do that."

Often times, if UNC is in a tight spot, Maples will go directly from third to the mound.

"It's kind of an added little wrinkle we can throw at you," said left fielder Sean Farrell. "He's in the game the whole time, he's probably pretty loose, (so) he's just got to get used to throwing off the mound."

The project has gone well so far. Maples leads the team with a 1.46 ERA and four saves. But it has created some tense moments for Maples' entourage, one roughly the size of Nelly's.

At Sunday's game against Clemson was a Hillsborough contingent that included, by Maples' count, "his immediate family, a couple friends of the family - four of five of them - and a couple uncles and cousins and aunts."

It's a varied group with a common consensus.

"It seems like all the boys on the team really like him," said Bunny Maples, his mother.

The six or seven Maples surrounding her agreed. So does UNC coach Mike Fox.

"He keeps everybody loose and carefree," Fox said. "He doesn't let too many things bother him. If any."

Adams and Farrell describe a now legendary prank Maples played on first baseman Jeremy Cleveland. After he and Cleveland violated a team rule, Maples packed the first baseman's equipment into a trash bag and left the bag in his locker with a note reading, "See me - Coach Fox."

"Coach did that to someone earlier in the year, and I got him to play along with it," Maples boasts. "Jeremy went to his office and said 'Coach, do you want to see me," and Coach just looked at him a few seconds. Finally he was like, 'No.'"

Although Fox expects Maples to be drafted this June by a major league team, on which he will probably be made a full-time pitcher, the only fear is perhaps the senior's breakout season has come too late for MLB scouts.

And after all, two is not a winner and three nobody remembers.

That's a fate that Maples, who coincidentally picked the song because No. 1 is his uniform number, likely won't face.

"He's been the key to our team's success so far," Adams said, "and he'll continue to be."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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