July 26, 2016 (Omaha, NE) – When he committed to play baseball for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers in the summer of 2013, Zack Hopeck had no conception of what was to become of his future program. Following a successful junior campaign on the mound with Heritage in which he broke every single season record, the right-handed pitcher decided this small school on the shore of South Carolina would be the place for him.
As a program, the Chanticleers had never reached Omaha, the annual site of the College World Series. Not only did they reach Omaha earlier this summer, but they went 6-2 over their 8 games played on the big stage and were able to knock off Arizona in a monumental upset on June 30 to claim the first baseball championship in school history, and the first title in any sport.
“I knew going in there that the baseball program was knocking on the door for years, it was just an honor to do it for all the players that came before us and built the program,” Hopeck said.
Hopeck, a Leesburg native and rising junior with the Chanticleers, started Game 1 against the Wildcats in what was a three-game series. After getting off to a rough start, he would go on to pitch 6.1 innings, giving up five hits and one earned run, while striking out five.
“I wasn’t really nervous, I was just really excited at the opportunity I had,” Hopeck said. “But it didn’t go exactly had I had scripted it, first inning I got knocked around a little bit. But I made it all the way to the seventh inning, and I’ll never forget walking off the field to a standing ovation from our fans on that stage in front of that many people.”
Despite the strong outing, Hopeck suffered a loss as the squad dropped the opener, 3-0.
The Chanticleers had played five games from June 19-25 in Omaha prior to the start of the final series against Arizona, showing no signs of intimidation on the national stage. Even after losing Game 1, the team rallied to win the next two games by scores of 5-4 and 4-3 respectively, winning college baseball’s biggest trophy.
However, Hopeck had to watch the final two games from the dugout.
“It was kind of weird, it’s a different perspective when you know that you’re not going to go in and you can’t contribute,” he said. “I knew from the beginning we were going to put a fight and give ourselves a chance to take it home. But definitely watching that last game from the sidelines, my heart was in my gut, my heart was pounding.”
Although Hopeck wasn’t able to give his team a win, he pitched admirably and proved to his teammates that they were capable of competing with the Wildcats.
Yes, when the Heritage prospect committed to Coastal Carolina, he knew he was joining a program capable of success, but he had no idea the level of success that was to come.
“We’re the first team in 60 years to go to Omaha and win in their first appearance,” he said.
Known for his change-up and curveball with strong pitch location but lacking in the velocity department, Hopeck’s own journey to starting Game 1 of the College World Series was an interesting ride.
As a freshman with the Chanticleers, he saw significant action on the mound.
“Playing time came right off the bat,” he said, “I’m definitely not the best guy on the staff but I find a way to get the job done. Some holes opened during opening weekend to where I had to start the Sunday night game, so I got my feet wet and that was kind of nice.”
After pitching the opening Sunday, Hopeck would go on to pitch the first nine Sunday games of the season. His playing time dropped off toward the end of the season but finished his freshman year with nine starts and 16 game appearances with a 4.91 ERA and a 3-2 record over 44 innings.
Early in his sophomore year, Hopeck’s playing time remained limited.
“I kind of fell through the cracks in the first three weeks, I didn’t pitch at all,” he said. “Then I came out for three innings and pitched pretty well, and I slowly worked my way back into the rotation.”
After serving time coming out of the bullpen, he finished the regular season as a mid-week starter. He ended his sophomore season with a 3.70 ERA and a 3-4 record over 56 innings of work.
Not being able to contribute as much as he wanted was new for Hopeck, who thrived throughout his Heritage career. With the Pride, he played all over the field, excelling both as a pitcher and as a hitter. He even batted leadoff as a senior with an on-base percentage of .570 and a batting average of .424.
“It was nice to step up for the team and do whatever I could,” Hopeck said. “I didn’t really have a position all throughout high school, I pretty much played everywhere every year, I even caught a game my sophomore year.”
Hopeck was named the Conference 21 Player of the Year as a senior, and was a first team 4A North Region performer as a utility player and second team as a pitcher. He set the Heritage career records for innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts. As a junior, he broke the single season records for wins, innings, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.
Realizing he was a better pitcher than a hitter, Hopeck chose to market himself strictly as a pitcher during his recruiting process.
“I wanted to go somewhere that was making playoff baseball,” he said. “I ended up sending out an email to about 15 schools, schools like ECU, N.C. State, South Carolina, West Virginia, lots of big name schools, and I got a response from Drew Thomas, the pitching coach at Coastal.”
It was Thomas who originally recruited Hopeck to the program, and it was Thomas again who chose to give him the ball in Game 1 of the College World Series.
Although he was not able to get the win, his strong performance likely cementing his slot in the regular rotation as a junior.
“I hope to make my way into the starting weekend rotation,” Hopeck said. “Lots of new faces around the locker room, pretty much half the locker room is new. Last year we had a real family mentality on the team, as upperclassmen we will have to reestablish that feeling.”
No matter what becomes of Hopeck and the Chanticleers in 2017, they will forever be national champions.
“It’s crazy, there’s been a few times where it actually hits me and I sit down and I think about it,” he said, “not many people can say that they’re a national champion at the Division I level, it honestly blows my mind, just a small school from South Carolina.”
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Written by Josh Apple
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