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How Jackson Van De Brake went from a middling JUCO batter to surprise slugger for UNC

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UNC junior infielder Jackson Van De Brake (6) starts to throw the ball as opponent sides to second base during the baseball game against VCU on Wednesday, March 1, 2023 at Boshamer Stadium.

Jackson Van De Brake’s first hit as a Tar Heel was a home run.

He’ll tell you getting to that moment was a process that began in his hometown of Yakima, located in south-central Washington. For three generations, the men of the Van De Brake family have played baseball — specifically shortstop — fostering a family-wide love for the game.

The Van De Brake boys – brothers Jace, Justin and Jackson – grew up tossing fastballs, free throws and flea flickers. The multi-sport athletes eventually gravitated toward baseball, something they inherited from their father, Kevin, who spent two years in the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league organization.

After high school, Van De Brake followed in his older brother's footsteps and spent two years playing for the local Tacoma Community College before transferring to a Division I school. Last year, Van De Brake decided to uproot from the West Coast and has since found a new home in Chapel Hill, where the slugger has become one of the most pleasant surprises for the Diamond Heels this season.

Van De Brake said he is an advocate for the junior college route. He attributed some of his offensive success to his experience with the wooden bats that the slugger used during his two years at TCC. NCAA Division I baseball uses metal bats, which can send batted balls further with less solid contact.

Tacoma, in place of captains, has a player council, which Van De Brake was voted to during his second year. 

“I think that speaks volumes for what people feel about him and not just being a really good player, but also being someone that, you know, can help lead,” TCC Head Coach Ryan Mummert said. 

Van De Brake's leadership potential and steady defensive hand led UNC Assistant Coach Jesse Wierzbicki to fly across the country, missing a 15-2 loss against South Carolina, to see the JUCO prospect.

“We joke about it because we got beat so bad,” UNC Head Coach Scott Forbes said. “We thought Colby could play (shortstop) as well. But we knew we (needed) another older middle infielder. And, you know, I'm thankful that (Wierzbicki) missed that game.”

That visit was on April 6. Soon after, UNC offered Van De Brake a scholarship which he accepted later that month.

Still, Mummert said he believes he didn’t properly convey Van De Brake’s value to the Tar Heels and was delightfully surprised to see him find offensive success.

“I think I probably undersold Jackson a little bit,” Mummert said. “I said, 'You know, I think he's really good, maybe seven-hole hitter and you know, can do some things and is athletic and can steal some bags but will play defense all day,' and then here he is, hitting the three-hole.”

Forbes said he noticed Van De Brake’s maturity and experience early on in the preseason.

“Early in the fall, we start practicing, start training, and it was clear to me that he was mature,” Forbes said. “I didn't know how good he was going to be. I thought he was going to be good at defense for sure.”

During fall play, Van De Brake and Colby Wilkerson flip-flopped between shortstop and second base. On opening day, Wilkerson stood on the dirt at Boshamer Stadium batting ninth while Van De Brake sat in the dugout.

“I thought, okay, this kid's gonna help us in some way, shape, or form,” Forbes said. “You don't truly know until the game start. He didn't start opening day. He started the third game of the season and he was ready to come out swinging.”

Van De Brake made the most of his early opportunities, hitting a homer during his first start in UNC’s series-clinching win against Seton Hall. In that single game, Van De Brake tied his career home run total at Tacoma – granted, that number was a single homer in two years – and he surpassed it a few games later by going yard twice versus VCU.

“I've been getting texts from my old teammates every day,” Van De Brake said in an interview after his standout performance against VCU. “Right now — ‘Dude, you already passed up your whole career,’ but I mean, I've stayed patient. I've never really worried about power numbers.”

Van De Brake continued to prove just how crucial his bat would become with two-home-run games in UNC’s early wins over Stony Brook and VCU.

While he was nabbed for his defensive ability, his offensive output has been a welcome and much-needed energizer for the team. As of Thursday's game against Miami, Van De Brake is currently slashing .325/.483/.623 and is second on the team in both batting average and hits.

“We were definitely surprised about the offense,” Forbes said. “I mean, you know because we didn't see him play enough to really get a huge gauge on the bat. But, you know, we thought he could hit it. We just didn't know he was going to be potentially three or four or five-hole type hitter.”

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Van De Brake began soaring up the batting order after his early sparks. At the end of February, he faced his biggest test yet at a sold-out attendance-breaking crowd at ECU’s Clark-LeClair Stadium – with just over 6,000 people – where the slugger went 2-for-4 with a homer.

“You know this scale, I haven’t really played in it, but it’s what you always dream of,” Van De Brake said after the away loss to ECU in February. “It’s not something you’re intimidated of, it’s something that you look forward to.”

To Wilkerson, the left-field solo shot at ECU meant something else: the beginning of the big-time production Jackson Van De Brake era.

“He cranked it in the highway there, and I was like ‘dang Jackson, where was that’ and now we know he’s got all that because he keeps doing that,” Wilkerson said. 

UNC has struggled to stay defensively consistent this season, ranking 148th in fielding percentage as of Thursday. However, the middle infield duo of Wilkerson and Van De Brake have found their groove together, leading the Tar Heels in assists.

“Baseball's a lot of failure. (Van De Brake) doesn't ever really get down on himself,” Wilkerson said. “He's always like, ‘Alright, come on, let's make this play. Alright, you’re going to get a big hit here.’ He’s always trying to lift up his other teammates.”

For Van De Brake, above all, his journey is all about the “process.” The devotion to the process of baseball that started with his grandfather was passed down to his dad, his brothers and is what Van De Brake shares with the rest of the Tar Heel team.  

“It's just kind of the whole process,” Van De Brake said. “And that's something that we talk about a lot is just kind of, you know, falling in love with the process and that's something that I've kind of always thought about.”

Van De Brake’s demeanor and hardworking attitude on and off the field are thanks to a foundation that circles back to his family and upbringing in Yakima, Washington. 

“He's just as blue collar as they come and you can definitely tell he's the youngest of older brothers,” Forbes said. “Nothing is going to faze him you know, it's just— there's nothing. There's nothing you can find negative about Jackson Van De Brake.”

@gracegnugent

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com