The home run is one of the universal languages of sports. Like a touchdown, a slam dunk or a hole-in-one, it’s a scoring method so emphatic that it has become forever synonymous with success. You don’t need to follow baseball to know that a home run is an automatic win. Home runs speak for themselves.
Third baseman Brandon Lankford has been speaking that language for five years and made UNC Asheville history on April 10, breaking the school’s home run record by blasting a line-drive home run over the right field fence in the first inning against Winthrop.
“I hadn’t really thought about the record a lot coming into the series,” Lankford said. “I’ve been just trying to take it one game at a time. I knew I had the potential to break the record but I never really had it on my mind. I’m thankful for all my years at Asheville and I love to see my name in the record books.”
With that swing the senior hit his 43rd home run, passing Brian Shehan who played from 1987 to 1990 before being drafted by the Montreal Expos. Shehan produced one of the best careers in UNCA baseball history, being the all-time leader of five hitting categories and, until recently, holding the record for home runs for three decades.
Originally from Mocksville, North Carolina, Lankford was a highly touted recruit after his career at Davie County high school. He was ranked as the fifth best third baseman in North Carolina by Perfect Game, the world’s largest baseball recruiting service, and did not disappoint in his freshman year. He led the team to their longest Big South tournament run since 2007, bringing the Bulldogs to the semi-final after hitting a 2-run go-ahead home run to upset Liberty. Lankford said this home run is tied for his most memorable, alongside the walk-off home run earlier this season against Radford.
After that home run against Liberty, he was named to the all tournament team in 2017. Two years later, Lankford was named to the Big South First-Team in 2019 after hitting 15 home runs.
“The first time we saw him, it was actually kind of funny. I kept going to watch his team play travel ball and I was going to watch a pitcher that was supposed to be coming in relief and the kid never came in relief. And I saw (Lankford) hit for about six games in a row. I’m pretty sure he had two or three doubles every game I saw. You knew he just had that natural ability to hit,” said UNCA Assistant Coach Chris Bresnahan.
Bresnahan and Head Coach Scott Friedholm recruited Lankford, along with Kole Harris and Chris Troost, as one of their first recruiting classes as coaches. These three players returned for a fifth year after their 2020 season was cut short by the pandemic.
“I was really happy for him. I mean, me, him and Chris, we’ve all been through a lot being fifth year COVID seniors,” said starting pitcher Kole Harris. “At the end of last year, we really thought our careers were done. We wouldn’t be able to get another chance. To see him be able to finish something that we’ve all known he had an opportunity to do was pretty special.”
Lankford is likely to take over Shehan’s records in RBIs and total bases if he keeps up his historically good hitting season. He needs 23 RBIs and 13 total bases to break Shehan’s records. To do this, Lankford would need to replicate stats similar to Shehan’s record setting 1989 season, where he hit 19 home runs, batted in 59 RBIs and hit 14 doubles.
While sharing similar accomplishments, Shehan played in an era of college baseball in which hitters had an advantage due to the composition of their bats. The largely unregulated aluminum bats of the 1980s and 1990s became a target of the NCAA in 1999 after a large number of scoring records were broken, who moved to control the materials, diameter and weight of the bat, known as BESR standards. The bats were deadened again in 2011 with the new BBCOR standard that required metal bats to produce batted ball speeds no greater than wood.
With those changes in mind, Lankford has produced one of the greatest careers in the Big South since the beginning of the BBCOR era. Since 2011, he is second in the conference in home runs and second in active career home runs in all NCAA Division I baseball.
Despite Lankford’s past accolades, his fifth year could be his best season yet. Currently, Lankford ranks fourth in the Big South in batting average, hitting .364, second in total bases, and leads the Big South in home runs with eight.
“He always had that power. If you told me Lank’s freshman year would be hitting .364 in 100 at-bats at any point in his career, I’d think you’re nuts,” Bresnahan said. “He’s matured more as a hitter.”
Alongside Lankford’s achievements, the Bulldogs are playing historically good baseball. For the first time in program history, the team has won four straight Big South conference series. UNCA’s utility player Dominic Freeberger also had a career series against Winthrop, finishing the series with 11 hits in 16 at-bats (.688 average) with nine runs scored, two home runs, six RBI and capturing his third save on the mound. His performance earned Freeberger Big South player of the week.
“It was just one of those things where you’re like, ‘Is it really even me swinging the bat,’” the Baltimore native said. “The ball is just finding all the holes. It was weird. I just had this relaxed concentration. My first game last week, I went 1-for-7. So obviously not what you want to do, so I was just staying positive.”
The week started with the longest game of the season against Presbyterian, a 14-inning staring contest between the conference rivals. Freeberger did only hit 1-for-7, but also played first base, pitched one inning and played center field. In the 11th inning, Freeberger began his hot streak on an amazing play, throwing a laser beam from center field to throw out a player at the plate, preventing the winning run from scoring. Freeberger said he’s always been the type of player to play any position needed from him.
“That’s one of the fun parts about baseball,” he said. “People have asked me what’s my favorite position to play and I just say it really doesn’t matter to me. I enjoy doing it. It’s all fun.”
One team did eventually blink and after a series of miscues and errors, Presbyterian walked off the Bulldogs in extra innings, 5-4.
The next series against Winthrop, the Bulldogs were dominant from the start. Asheville scored 23 runs on 28 hits with five players having multi-games in the two games on Friday. Lankford and Freeberger each had two home runs in the series, with catcher M.J. Lucas and outfielder Grayson Preslar each hitting their third home runs. The Bulldogs swept the double header, winning their fourth series in a row, but lost the finale to Winthrop last Saturday, 10-8.
“The way we’re playing, we’re feeding off each other really well. It was the most energetic team I’ve been a part of,” Harris said. “Right now we’re just gelling really well as a team as a whole. And I don’t think that’s something we’ve ever really done here. It’s always been like a separation somewhere along the line. But right now I think like both sides pitching, hitting defense, we’re all coming together really well. No matter what the score is we always feel like we have a chance to win.”