Similar to the baseball adage made famous by the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, the Town of Holly Springs has undergone its own process of creating a local home for our national pastime over the past two years. When the Coastal Plain League, a circuit of collegiate summer teams that operates throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, and in 2016 expanded into Georgia, named Holly Springs as its then-newest member, there was indeed much building to be done to arrive at a family-friendly brand of sports entertainment that perfectly complemented the town’s growth.
For years prior there had been periodic talk of bringing baseball to Holly Springs as a local alternative to the Durham Bulls or Carolina Mudcats, both of which are over a thirty-minute drive away. Through a collaboration of efforts from the Town and the CPL that vision became reality when the franchise was announced in late 2014. The Town purchased the stadium site, located between Main Street and the NC-55 bypass and originally earmarked as a source of additional dirt for a nearby landfill, from Wake County and quickly broke ground on the multi-sport North Main Athletic Complex with the season only months away.
Having a place to call home, however, was only the “top of the order” for the Salamanders, to use baseball terminology. The ownership group, comprised of CPL co-founders Pete Bock and Jerry Petitt, named Tommy Atkinson as the team’s first General Manager. Atkinson brought with him an accomplished baseball background, having played collegiately at Mount Olive College and afterward holding various coaching positions, including a stint with East Carolina University. Atkinson was also no stranger to the CPL as he previously coached on the Fayetteville Swamp Dogs staff. His familiarity with the league and the player recruiting process made him an outstanding choice to head up the new franchise.
Auston Moore joined the club as Director of Marketing and Promotions after previously serving in a similar capacity with the Durham Bulls. A handful of interns including Brad Cook, who would go on to be hired full-time for the 2016 season as the team’s Assistant General Manager, rounded out the small but enthusiastic group that would be responsible for everything from selling advertisements to coordinating concessions. The club opted for more local roots in selecting its first-ever head coach, hiring Andrew Ciencin, an infielder on the 2012 NC State baseball team and member of the coaching staff for the 2013 Wolfpack squad that reached College World Series.
Starting a sports franchise from scratch and building a bond with the local community in a smaller league and with a bare-bones staff was certainly full of challenges. There were building code inspections to be passed before the stadium could be used, concession permit delays that left the team having to bring in outside food vendors for the early games, and a host of other “Murphy’s Law” moments, but the Salamanders leadership artfully navigated them all. In a matter of months they coordinated ticket sales, brought on advertising partners, recruited players as well as the local host families that would house them, developed a promotional schedule, and saw to it that everything was in place for the season to kick off.
The Salamanders’ players delivered in equally impressive fashion, opening with a thrilling walk-off victory in the bottom of the 9th inning in their first home game and following with another home victory in their final at bat two days later. On the season the 2015 Salamanders reached first place in the CPL’s Eastern Division for a brief period and ultimately qualified for the league playoffs, where they took the top seed and eventual champion Edenton Steamers to a deciding third game before dropping the series.
The 2016 edition of the Salamanders didn’t fare as well on the field, falling short of the playoffs, but local support continued to grow as the team increased its promotional and community outreach efforts. The club supported a number of causes through game-night events including the Miracle League of the Triangle, St. Baldrick’s Foundation, and the Holly Springs Food Cupboard. It also held military and law enforcement appreciation nights. Off the field, the Salamanders continued to grow their presence in the community by participating in local events such as the Farmer’s Market and Kids’ Appreciation Day at Sugg Farm as well as visiting schools and businesses. After completing the season in early August, the staff quickly went back to work planning for the 2017 campaign, which will include even more fan and community engagement as well as continued additions to the North Main stadium.
Leadoff Hit: Inside the Inaugural Season of the Holly Springs Salamanders is a new book by local author Jason Zemcik that details the behind-the-scenes effort involved in getting the Salamanders off the ground and the enthusiasm with which the community embraced them during the first year. “Like so many other local residents I was really excited for Holly Springs to get a baseball team. After following them last year and getting to know a lot of the staff I wanted to commemorate the season and help continue building on the success they had,” said Zemcik, a western Pennsylvania native who relocated to Holly Springs after serving seven years as an Army officer at Fort Bragg who has also published a book on his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.
Zemcik delivered the first copy of the book to Mayor Sears and held a signing at a recent Salamanders game. “It’s been great getting to meet so many people who love baseball and are glad to see the team here,” he continued. “We have an outstanding facility and solid staff; the future for baseball in Holly Springs is really bright.”