Jan. 24, 2014
Cullowhee, N.C. - Nearly 10 years after the undersized, country boy baseball player from Marion stepped onto Western Carolina's campus, he made an extra special return.
Former Catamount right-handed pitcher, Greg Holland - who became a household name in Major League baseball with the Kansas City Royals last season - was the key-note speaker at the fourth "Celebration of Catamount Baseball Banquet" held in the Grandroom of the A.K. Hinds University Center on Saturday, Jan. 18.
Coming off a historic season on the mound that included a franchise record for saves in a single-season as the Royals closer, Holland was the centerpiece of a night that focused on the success and future of Catamount baseball. The fourth such fundraising banquet included special recognitions for all the baseball parents in attendance, as well as recognizing all former players who were in attendance that spanned the last 75 years of WCU baseball.
Former WCU sports information director (and current athletics historian) Steve White and current head coach Bobby Moranda opened the event. According to White, the room atop the University Center in the middle of WCU's campus currently sits high above where the original baseball diamond was placed in Cullowhee - a fact that was seemingly fitting for the occasion.
With returning players still sporting the shiny championship rings issued back in November at a special 2013 team luncheon, those attending the banquet were treated to a highlight video outlining the success of last year's squad. WCU led the nation in home runs per game as a part of the 39-20 season that included a school-record 23 wins in Southern Conference play - as well as a consecutive run of 16-straight victories against league foes.
Prior to addressing the large gathering, university Chancellor Dr. David Belcher was presented with his championship ring from the 2013 season.
"This is an amazing time at our university and we are amidst a revival of Catamount athletics," said Belcher during a brief address during the banquet. "To borrow a phrase from a movie that's out now, Western Carolina and its athletic programs - we're `catching fire.' We are in hot pursuit of excellence in our own strategic vision. We cannot do this alone and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your support. Your being here tonight says a ton about you as individuals and your support, and we are grateful to you for participating in this fundraising event to support baseball and our entire athletics program."
Belcher added, "We need your support, your advocacy and your energy in that of an expanding Catamount Nation across this entire region. If we come together and do our job, we are going to make possible stories like Greg Holland's. You all have a stake in this man because you have been supporting us all along and we are truly grateful."
Following the chancellor's remarks, White and Moranda presented this year's "Leggett No. 7 Legacy" recipient, senior utility player Luke Gragg. The fourth-annual recipient, Gragg, who sees time as the designated hitter and plays in the outfield, will wear the No. 7 jersey which was made famous at WCU by former coaching great Jack Leggett.
The evening reached its crescendo just before the key-note speaker. Moranda presented Holland with his actual game-worn jersey from his time in Cullowhee in a special frame prior to him delivering the key-note address. Holland was welcomed by a highlight video of his record-setting 2013 season.
"First off, I'm glad I got to finally see a few outs," Holland joked when referencing the highlight package assembled from his 2013 season with the Kansas City Royals, which followed the recap video of WCU's 2013 season. "I've got to go to spring training in a few weeks and just got to watch 20 minutes worth of home runs - I think I'm going to have nightmares about it."
Last season, Holland was named Kansas City's "2013 Bruce Rice Pitcher of the Year" for a second-consecutive season as he set a Royals franchise record with 47 saves. Only two other MLB relievers had more saves than did Holland in 2013 - Baltimore's Jim Johnson and Craig Kimbrel with the Atlanta Braves, both with 50. Holland also matched the Royals' single-season record for strikeouts by a reliever, fanning an American League reliever-best 103, including closing the season with a K, matching the club record set in 1971 by Jim York.
Holland recorded 19 saves for Western Carolina from 2005-07, currently ranking fifth in program history. He posted 10 career victories in his 82 career appearances with a 4.22 career ERA through 149.1 innings pitched. Holland recorded 154 career strikeouts against 70 walks.
In 2007, Holland posted a career-best 10 saves while earning first team All-Southern Conference accolades as the Catamounts claimed a share of the regular season title. He was also named to the SoCon's Spring Academic All-Conference team in both 2006 and '07.
Holland was drafted by Kansas City in the 10th round of the 2007 MLB First-Year Player Draft on the heels of WCU's runner-up finish in the NCAA Baseball Chapel Hill Regional. He went on to make his Major League debut on Aug. 2, 2010 against the Oakland Athletics.
"Thanks for having me back. This has been unbelievable, a great night," Holland began.
During his remarks, Holland reminisced about his time at Western Carolina beginning with his freshman year.
"I really didn't know what to expect coming here to go to school. I was undersized. I was a pretty good baseball player, but I broke my jaw my senior year in high school and lost a lot of weight, didn't get to pitch very much. Luckily, I gained some weight back during the summer and I told my parents that I wanted to come here to Western Carolina," said Holland.
Ironically enough, the opposing player who broke his jaw - Jonathan Greene - ended up being one of his Catamount teammates in Cullowhee, and was on hand during Holland's night.
"I always wanted to be the best player on the field. And there were many times in my career that I wasn't, and there still are. But I always wanted to be. And I think that's something that the group of people I played with and the group before me; the group now and the group that will come in here next. That's the mentality of Western Carolina baseball - you just want to win, be as good as you can be and don't back down. I think that had a lot to do with my success and our success as a team."
Holland went on to thank many of his former teammates and coaches for their support both during his time in Cullowhee and beyond.
"Everyone that had something to do with this campus help mold me into the person I am today - and that's a person I'm proud of. It's not because of my success on the baseball field; it's because I know I'm ready for what's around the corner," Holland explained. "I might be done tomorrow playing baseball. It might be 10 years from now. But I'm not worried about it because I know that a lot of the things I learned on this campus are going to help me with whatever's next."
Holland, who previously had returned several times to talk with the current Catamounts, reiterated some of the proverbial words of wisdom he had imparted in private during his closing remarks.
"As players, I just want you to enjoy it," said Holland. "Embrace the moment because you can ask the guys I played with... you can ask the guys that played before me. You can play pro ball - you can play 10 years in the big leagues. But these are the things you are going to remember."
He continued, "You're going to remember 5:00 am workouts, running stadiums, puking... you're going to remember dog fights with Clemson, and beating Georgia and going to Georgia Tech and getting a road win - I think you were there for a few of those (referencing former Georgia Tech assistant and current WCU coach Bobby Moranda). You're going to build relationships with people that you are never going to lose touch with and memories that you're never going to forget."
With the audience hanging on every word like they were awaiting a ninth-inning, full-count pitch, Holland closed his poignant address.
"I was fortunate enough to go to the All-Star game this year. And I'm telling you, winning here is by far the most special thing to me. And being able to come back and be here in front of you guys has been really special. Just know that these things are going to help you become a better person, a better man, a better father, a better husband. Just enjoy the moment you are in and enjoy each other - and Go Cats."
Western Carolina opens the 2014 season with a three-game set at Childress Field/Hennon Stadium against the Ohio Bobcats Feb. 14-16.