LUMBERTON — Evan Odum can toe the rubber with his mind at ease this spring at Lumberton High School.
The rising sophomore’s already made up his mind on where he’ll play college baseball, choosing a nationally-ranked program Odum believes is a few players away from its first national title.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play at the University of North Carolina,” Odum said. “The past couple years it seems like their program keeps getting better and better and I love the college baseball atmosphere up there.”
Odum became the first player in the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions’ 2016 class on Monday, verbally committing to the Tar Heels alongside associate head coach Scott Forbes and recruiting coordinator Scott Jackson in Chapel Hill. Rated as the fifth-best in-state prospect overall in his class by Perfect Game USA, the nation’s premiere baseball scouting service, Odum’s projected as a front-end starting pitcher in college.
Odum is Robeson County’s first Division I baseball commit since Michael Bass picked UNC-Wilmington prior to signing with the Seahawks 2009. If his development continues as expected, he’ll likely be one of several hurlers signed by a program that’s reached the College World Series six times since 2006.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I haven’t seen many high school sophomores hitting 90 on the (radar) gun,” said Don Hutchens, coach of the showcase South Charlotte Panthers and the point man in Odum’s recruitment. “We made a number of schools aware of his talent and he did the rest. He’s performed at a high level in front of a lot of college coaches.”
Hutchens coaches three teams with the Panthers, including his strictly-senior 2014 squad featuring 18 players who have already committed, and coordinated multiple unofficial visits for Odum. He says Odum spent several days deciding between North Carolina and Virginia after talking with both programs.
“When they’re sophomores like Evan, a lot of times picking a school comes down to who they liked growing up,” Hutchens said. “They haven’t really done the research, toured the facilities and that sort of thing. We wanted it to be more organized and for him to understand the decision he was making.”
Lumberton coach Paul Hodges applauds the work Tar Heel assistants along with Hutchens have done in assessing Odum’s potential during weekend travel ball and showcase games with the Panthers.
“I think it was smart for North Carolina to jump on him now because if they waited two years, teams like South Carolina and other big-time programs would be in the mix,” Hodges said. “He’s 6-foot-2 and will probably be 6-4 and a lot more stronger by the time he graduates. It would’ve been stupid for them to not try and get Evan to commit.”
In limited work as a freshman for the Pirates, Odum fanned 16 batters and walked four in 14 2/3 innings with an ERA just over 6. One of his best outings was a one-hitter over four scoreless innings against annual contender Pinecrest late in the season.
“I’m going to try and throw more first-pitch strikes this season because my (freshman) year I had some problems with that,” Odum said. “A couple times I’d have a batter 0-2 or 1-2 then throw a curveball right down the middle. Coach Hodges said he’s going to work with me on my location.”
Odum is fine tuning a changeup this offseason to go along with two other pitches and is expected to be an everyday starter at Lumberton this spring when he’s not on the mound. On his day to pitch, Odum slides into the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind senior Justice Sampson, ahead of veterans Raleigh Forrest and Daniel Oxendine.
“He’ll play a position for us usually, probably third base or in the outfield, and we’ll try to save his arm as much as possible,” Hodges said. “The groundwork’s there for him to be a great player and when he learns how to pitch and hit his spots, he’ll really be able to tap into his natural ability.”
Odum is one of three players coached by Hutchens on the Panthers’ 2016 team who has committed to a Division I program. Four athletes on South Charlotte’s 2015 squad have already announced their college intentions and of the 18 commits on the 2014 team, nine will play at ACC schools.
Panthers senior standout Alex Destino, a South Carolina commit from North Buncombe High, recently helped the 18U US National Team capture a gold medal over Japan in Taichung, Taiwan.
Following a player like Destino’s lead, Hutchens says Odum has a chance at being the next torchbearer for South Charlotte travel ball if he continues his strong work ethic, one of the sophomore’s best qualities.
“To be North Carolina’s first commit in the 2016 class is a credit to Evan and how much he cares about getting better,” Hutchens said. “It’s a strong reflection of a young man that’s talented off the field. North Carolina’s projecting a guy that’s going to be a great student also. I think everyone’s excited about the future for Evan.”
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.