CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As a catcher, Korey Dunbar often has the best seat in the house. It was his seat on the bench, however, that helped the former Nitro High School slugger make the leap from high school star to becoming a productive player at the collegiate level.
Dunbar, the 2012 Daily Mail Kanawha Valley Player of the Year as well as the state sportswriters’ player of the year, passed up a chance to play professional baseball shortly after his senior year at Nitro when the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the 39th round of the Major League Baseball draft. He also turned down offers from Louisville, North Carolina State and Auburn. The University of North Carolina is where Dunbar wanted to continue his baseball career.
“I just felt like it was the right place for me,” Dunbar said. “It’s unreal here; I didn’t want to miss out on that. I didn’t want to come back when I was 30 years old and have to go through school again. Getting a degree here is huge and had a lot to do with it. It’s a home away from home.”
As a freshman, Dunbar had to adjust to not being the big fish in a small pond anymore. He appeared in 37 of the Tar Heels’ games — starting 14 of them — but was stuck behind several players on the depth chart and not used to being relegated to backup duty.
That experience — sitting on the bench — opened Dunbar’s eyes and also helped him forge a bond with his Tar Heels’ teammates.
“It was tough going through it,” he said. “Honestly it was good for me just to (watch). You don’t get to really sit back and just watch. You learn a lot of things sitting and watching the game. It made me a much better player and it gives you perspective on the whole thing. It lets you sit down and look at how far you’ve come.”
After accounting for three runs batted in with a .163 batting average in 43 at-bats in 2013, Dunbar spent the summer playing in the Coastal Plains League for the Wilson Tobs. It was there, he said, things started to come back together. He had put so much pressure on himself that things just were not happening, which resulted in more pressure and a downward spiral for the former Wildcat standout.
“Going through summer ball and going through that mentally made a huge step forward in my career,” Dunbar said. “I can go into (2014) with a lot of confidence. The biggest thing was getting my confidence back and getting the mindset of no matter what happens to keep that confidence.”
That confidence, it seems, is paying off for Dunbar during his sophomore season. He has started 39 of the 40 games he’s appeared in, slugging three home runs to go with 25 RBI (third best on the team) and behind the plate he is 16 of 36 throwing out attempted basestealers as of April 27.
That’s not to say Dunbar believes he is a finished product. He has worked with Tar Heels’ assistant and former UNC catcher Mark Fleury on being a better backstop.
“We pride ourselves on our pitching. We have some of the best arms in the country and it’s fun catching those guys,” Dunbar said. “Our season is year-round. We finished up in Omaha (at the College World Series) last year and within a week I’m playing summer ball. From summer ball it’s fall season. I think all that stuff comes back to all the preparation we do, and we do a lot of it.
“PFPs (pitcher fielding practice), holding runners practice, holding on to the pitch, working on our picks — our catching guy down here, Mark Fleury, is unbelievable. He’s helped me a lot.”
North Carolina, which is 27-19 (13-11 ACC) and in the middle of the ACC standings, has appeared in the College World Series 10 times, including six since 2006, but has never won a national championship. The Tar Heels close the regular season with mid-week, non-conference games against Campbell, Elon and Gardner-Webb with weekend conference series’ at home against Florida State and away at Miami. The ACC tournament is scheduled for May 20-25 in Greensboro, N.C. The NCAA tournament begins the following week on May 30.
Contact sportswriter Tom Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports.