Photo by Ben Brown

Former Southern Lee phenom Thomas Harrington went from Campbell walk-on to Big South Freshman of the Year in 2021. He’s back with big expectations this season.

By Billy Liggett

Thomas Harrington breezed through the first four batters in Appalachian State’s lineup on Opening Day before facing a familiar foe in former Southern Lee High School teammate (and his former catcher) Hayden Cross. Cross, no stranger to Harrington’s approach on the mound, drilled a single up the middle and gave Campbell’s ace a wink after he reached first base.

“Yeah, I knew he was sitting on a fastball, and I just took my chance,” Harrington says with a grin. “He swung and connected. I guess I’d rather give up a hit to him than anyone else.”

Harrington didn’t give up a hit to anyone else. In six innings of work in his 2022 debut, Harrington allowed just the one hit, hit another batter and struck out a career-high 13 Pioneers in the Camels’ 9-0 win. It was a stellar outing — in front of several Major League scouts sitting in the stands at Jim Perry Stadium — for the defending Big South Freshman of the Year and the conference’s pre-season Pitcher of the Year.

“There were all these expectations coming in, and to just go out there, compete and have my best stuff in the zone — to just let the result take care of itself — it was great,” Harrington says.

The expectations are big for a young man who, despite a stellar career at Southern Lee, received minimal looks from Division I baseball programs after high school. In Sanford, Harrington was a two-time all-conference pitcher, and as a junior in 2019, he posted a 4-0 record with a 0.32 ERA, striking out 54 and giving up only 18 hits in 43 innings. He pitched just one game as a senior — giving up a hit in five innings — before the pandemic canceled his season.

He was also the starting quarterback for the Cavaliers, throwing for 892 yards and 9 touchdowns during his junior season in 2018. He was on his way to bigger numbers in his senior year before an injury derailed his season and pushed his focus solely on baseball.

Photo by Ben Brown

North Carolina Central University, North Carolina A&T and UNC-Asheville were among the programs interested in Harrington, but he chose instead to walk on at nearby Campbell, which has become a regular guest in the NCAA Tournament over the past 10 years. He said he was partially drawn to the program’s success, but more interested in working with the coaching staff at Campbell and being part of the atmosphere.

“I’ve only been here about two years, and already, this program feels like a group of 40 best friends. It’s just awesome here,” he says. “The atmosphere is awesome, and the standard we’re held to is awesome. The academics are great. All of that went into my decision.”

Harrington knew coming in that he had the talent to not only make the squad, but contribute. He figured he would spend his first season coming out of the bullpen and giving an inning or two when needed. But just days before the beginning of the 2021 season, Harrington learned the coaching staff was penciling him in as the Sunday starter — third in the rotation.

He answered the call, going five strong innings giving up just one run and striking out six in what ended as a 3-2 win over Liberty. The season only got better from there — Harrington made 16 appearances (14 starts), going 6-3 and posting a 3.45 ERA, the fifth lowest in the Big South and the lowest among all freshmen. His 75 strikeouts were a team high, and his best game came against USC Upstate, a complete game one-hit shutout. On the biggest stage — the regional final against eventual national champion Mississippi State, Harrington kept the Camels in the game working five innings of one-hit relief in a tough 6-5 loss.

The accolades were many at season’s end. In addition to being named Big South Freshman of the Year, Harrington was second-team All Big South, a College Baseball Newspaper Freshman All-American, a third-team Baseball America Freshman All-American and a first-team D1 Baseball Freshman All-American.

Harrington is humble when the awards are mentioned, but he credits the Campbell coaching staff for helping him develop in that crucial first year.

“I’d always thrown hard, but physically, I wasn’t there yet coming into college,” he says. “Then I got in the strength program with our strength coach Matt Rodriguez, who’s awesome. He helps our program so much, and I attribute a lot to him, as well as our pitching coach, Tyler Robinson. They’ve both given me the utilities to get better.”

Photo courtesy of Campbell Athletics

The goal this season is to “win as many games as we can,” Harrington says. After Campbell’s opening win, it dropped three straight to App State and East Carolina. In Harrington’s second start of the season against Maryland, Harrington gave up just two hits and one earned run, striking out nine in seven innings in a 4-0 loss (the offense managed just three hits, and Campbell relief gave up three runs in the ninth). He’s scheduled to face Ohio State Friday in the first game of the All-American Classic at Segra Stadium in Fayetteville

The dream is a trip to Omaha, and despite the slow start, that’s not a ridiculous dream. Campbell entered the season ranked in the Top 25 of several college baseball polls, and in addition to Harrington, the Camels feature another top sophomore in shortstop Zach Neto, the defending Big South Conference Player of the Year predicted by many to go in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft this year. Campbell was just a few outs away from pulling off a major upset against the eventual champ last year.

As for what happens after 2022, Harrington is mum. He has the attention of scouts, and more starts like his opener on Feb. 18 could catapult him up the draft ranks before June 2. He did say he’s been in contact with former Camels currently in the big leagues and in various minor league systems. Cedric Mullins, who spent a season at Campbell before leaving for the pros, was an All-Star centerfield starter for the Baltimore Orioles in 2021 and became the organization’s first 30/30 hitter. Reliever Ryan Thompson pitched in the 2020 World Series for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Cam Cowan, a 2021 Campbell grad currently in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system, texted Harrington up after his big opener and teased him about coming close to his school record of 15 strikeouts, set on Opening Day in 2020 against South Alabama.

“He teased me about not being able to beat his record, and I told him, ‘Nah, they wouldn’t let me go long enough,’” he says, again with a grin.