A Zoom to the top

After re­turn­ing from the Col­lege World Series in Omaha, Mike Zolk re­flects on ‘the most amaz­ing year of my life.’

Park­wood nat­ive Mike “Zoom” Zolk hit .269 with 40 RBI as a sopho­more second base­man for the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina this year. Zolk helped guide Car­o­lina to 59 wins, the most in pro­gram his­tory. The Tar Heels fell just short of the Col­lege World Series cham­pi­on­ship round. PHOTO COUR­TESY DAVE SCHMIDT / UNC ATH­LET­ICS

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.” ••

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