Wilkersons living out college baseball dreams

Jun. 10—HENDERSON — When the North Carolina and East Carolina baseball teams met earlier this season, a play at second base involving Tar Heels sophomore Colby Wilkerson drew an animated response from his brother Daniel Wilkerson.

Only one problem.

Daniel wasn't in the stands. He was in the dugout for ECU, fulfilling his duties as graduate manager for the Pirates.

ECU volunteer assistant coach Colby Bortles responded by slapping Daniel across the shoulder.

"I threw my hands on my head and was like almost pulling — not pulling for them — but pulling for my brother in the heat of the moment," Daniel said. "I just kind of reacted to the situation because it was my brother. And everybody was giving me a hard time about it in the dugout, but it was kind of funny."

Now imagine if their teams were to meet again at the upcoming College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Wilkerson brothers, who hail from rural Granville County and played baseball for their dad Todd Wilkerson at Kerr-Vance Academy, are too wise to get that far ahead of themselves. But it's hard not to think about with Colby's Tar Heels and Daniel's Pirates both alive in the NCAA Super Regionals.

The field of 16 teams will be cut in half by Monday, weather permitting. No. 8 ECU (46-19) opened the Super Regionals Friday in Greenville with a 13-7 win over No. 9 Texas (45-20) while the first game for No. 10 North Carolina (42-20) against Arkansas (41-19) is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday in Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels have been to Omaha 11 times while the Pirates have been knocking on the door for the last two decades-plus with seven Super Regional appearances. Needing one more win, the Diamond Bucs are closer than ever.

ECU hopes this will finally be its year to at least crack the field, while North Carolina goes searching for its first national title.

Only six years ago, Colby and Daniel were wearing the same KVA uniform. And when Daniel embarked on a playing career for Division III Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, the idea of being in opposing dugouts for prominent Division I programs, with this much at stake, didn't seem likely.

As kids, they were regulars at UNC sporting events, including NCAA tourney baseball games at Boshamer Stadium.

"That was always a dream and for both of us to be at this point," Colby said. "And this stage in our careers are obviously a little different, but we ended up in the same kind of area and that's kind of always how we've pictured it really."

Daniel's Randolph-Macon team was 15-1 and looking like a contender on the national level when his senior season in 2020 was abruptly ended by COVID-19. A Yellow Jackets assistant coach later helped him land a spot on Cliff Godwin's ECU staff.

In short order, Daniel went from Division III baseball in Ashland, Virginia, to the dugout of the Pirates' rowdy Clark-LeClair Stadium, playing against the likes of Texas, which has the most College World Series appearances (37) of any program.

"It was kind of wild there for my first game at Clark-LeClair," Daniel said, "seeing how packed it gets and how crazy the fans get sometimes, you know, yelling at umpires. The fans here are awesome. They bring the energy and are a big part of our success. It was kind of cool to see that coming from a smaller school where we don't get a lot of fans. A lot of the fans at our games were parents and friends and family and so to see so many people at games here was really cool to see."

Boshamer is a special place for baseball too, especially this time of year.

No matter where Colby or Daniel played over the years, they've always been able to count on their dad Todd and mom Joan to be there supporting them. Even at Pittsburgh on a cold night in April, Colby noted, when he's not even in the lineup.

"I don't think they've missed a game since I've been in the jersey whether I'm on the field or not," the Tar Heels' second baseman said.

Todd hung up his coaching cleats when Colby graduated from KVA, both of them leaving as three-time state champions.

The boys learned a lot from their father.

"I can't leave my mom out of that either," Daniel said. "She spent a lot of time with it as well, driving me all over the country and flying with me all over the country playing games and always there supporting me when my dad couldn't be there sometimes because he was in the tobacco field or whatever he might have going on."

Those are the tobacco fields of the community of Dexter, near Oxford.

Colby's walk-up music for plate appearances at Boshamer, John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," has a different ring to it when you consider the roots of the selection.

"It's just some Granville County country," Colby said. "Just a farmer boy who grew up on a tobacco farm."

The farmer boy has played a key role down the stretch for North Carolina, which like East Carolina, saved its best baseball for the second half of the season. Both teams won their conference tournaments and Colby had the honor of squeezing the final outs of the both the ACC tourney championship against N.C. State and the regional final against VCU.

Colby played in about half of the Tar Heels' games this season, as he did last year, but also like last season, he's been able to stick in the starting lineup down the stretch.

Colby has tallied hits in three of his last five games including a two-hit showing versus VCU and a three-hit performance with a pair of RBIs against Hofstra in the NCAA tourney opener.

His .974 fielding percentage might be his foremost attribute for head coach Scott Forbes, who shared a hug with Colby after the regional final win over VCU, telling his sophomore that he was glad he found him and that he was a great fit for the program.

Moments like these just don't always come about for the kids who grow up fantasizing about being ballplayers.

But it's happening for Colby, a starter for one of the best programs in college baseball. And for Daniel, an aspiring coach who will depart for an assistant spot on the bench in the renowned Cape Cod Baseball League this summer when the Pirates are finished.

Whenever that is.

"We dreamed about it since we were little," Colby said. "So it just kind of worked its way into reality."