After spending two weeks in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series, Mike “Zoom” Zolk searched his brain for a comparison Philadelphians would understand.
“You know how Philly is with the Mummer’s Parade on New Year’s?” Zolk asked. “That was the city of Omaha for two full weeks. It was like a different world, where nothing else was going on for 500 miles.”
Zolk, a Parkwood native and 2011 graduate of Neumann-Goretti High School, recently completed his sophomore season at the University of North Carolina. A second baseman, Zolk started 66 games for the most successful Tar Heels baseball team in the school’s storied athletic history.
Zolk’s Tar Heels went 59-12 in 2013 to advance to Omaha, where they were the prohibitive favorites to win the whole thing. Though they fell short in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament (the Heels went 2-2 in the CWS, losing to North Carolina State on June 16 before being knocked out by UCLA on Saturday), Zolk said his time in Omaha — as well as the season in general — is something he will never forget.
To put it simply, the college baseball players that make it to Omaha after a grueling season are treated like celebrities on the red carpet. Fans follow players everywhere they go, whether it’s lining up for autographs after a practice, or approaching them when they were out to dinner with teammates or family. It didn’t matter that the virtually anonymous college ballplayers were out of uniform, as fans knew who they were regardless.
“One night out at dinner, someone came over to my table and asked me to sign a plastic cup for them,” Zolk said with a laugh as he spoke on the phone from UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, where he is taking summer classes and beginning his offseason workouts. “One day I signed like 30 autographs for kids before we got on our bus.”
For a humble, hard-working, blue-collar kid from the Northeast, the Omaha experience took the cake for Zolk. Growing up, he remembers going to Phillies games with his dad, Mike Sr., desperately hanging around afterward in hopes of scoring an autograph from Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Pat Burrell.
After Carolina won its best-of-three Super Regional bracket against South Carolina to advance to Omaha, Zolk had a flashback to years past, watching the College World Series on ESPN and dreaming of one day getting there himself.
“Then, all of a sudden, it started coming true,” he said. “I was just blown away, laying in bed thinking to myself, ‘Is this really happening to me?’ Signing autographs for all those kids … that was me five years ago. I’m bummed we lost, but all in all it was the most amazing year of my life.”
Another aspect that made the final two weeks of the 2013 season so special is that Zolk got to share the experience in Nebraska with his dad and mom, Diane. Mike Sr. has coached his son all his life, including as the head coach at Neumann-Goretti (he stepped down from that position earlier this month to be able to spend more time watching his son’s games, as well as to concentrate more on his duties as an instructor at Sluggersville, an elite baseball training facility at 9490 Blue Grass Road).
The father-son duo spent countless hours refining Zoom’s skills, be it taking countless grounders at a field or extra swings in the batting cage. When the younger Zolk didn’t have a game or practice in Omaha, he and his father were watching other teams play in person or back at the hotel, participating in their favorite pastime: watching and discussing baseball.
“It was the greatest all-around experience in all my years in baseball,” the elder Zolk said of his time in Omaha. “Ever since he was a kid, we would play baseball for hours on end. We’re obsessed with it. We’re baseball junkies, so all of this feels like a reward for all the hard work he put into it.”
Baseball has served as a bonding instrument, something that has kept them incredibly close as the younger Zolk grew from boy to man. The miles between Philadelphia and Chapel Hill put a wedge between them, distance-wise, but they still talked all the time via text message and phone calls throughout the season, figuring out ways for Zoom to become a better player.
“Him coming and being in Omaha every day meant the world to me, because he couldn’t be here a lot during the season,” Zoom said. “He’s my best friend, and there’s nobody I’d rather be able to share this experience with.”
After a freshman season in which he wore down physically at the end and was removed from Carolina’s starting lineup, Zoom ramped up his offseason training with the goal of staying on the field for every game. He succeeded, giving the Tar Heels a solid bat toward the bottom of the order, hitting .269 with 40 RBI, six stolen bases and a .351 on-base percentage, in addition to playing a solid second base.
“That heart and competitive fire is what sets him apart,” his father said. “When you play to compete and to win, the best version of yourself will show. It was important for him to prove that he belonged. He focuses on every pitch and every at-bat. When they lost (to UCLA), I just told him how proud of him I was. Nobody can ever take it away from him that he was a part of the best UNC baseball team ever. It’s just been awesome.”
For his part, Zoom isn’t sure he’ll ever be able to top this season, from the Atlantic Coast Conference championship to the most wins in school history to his 3-for-4, four RBI performance in a 12-11, 13-inning victory over Florida Atlantic on June 3 that propelled UNC into the Super Regional round.
Despite not winning a College World Series, he’ll always fondly remember Omaha, a time spent with teammates who became good friends and a Father’s Day spent with a dad who taught him to love the game of baseball.
“The memories of the friends I made, the people I met and the team this year, it’s something I’ll never forget,” Zoom said. “It’s the best team I’ll ever be a part of. I set a goal for myself, and I got there. It’s pretty sweet.” ••