As he walked out on the field to meet reporters for the UNC baseball team’s annual media day this week, junior centerfielder Brian Miller found himself in a position neither he nor his head coach, Mike Fox, could have ever imagined just three years ago.
Although he was a local product coming out of Millbrook High School in Raleigh—a place where he was a three-sport athlete and the all-time leading hitter in baseball—Miller went completely unnoticed by the UNC coaching staff.
A lifelong Tar Heel fan, Miller instead committed to play for UNC-Asheville. When the Bulldogs’ head coach at the time, Tom Smith, decided to retire after the 2014 season, however, Miller then decided to follow his dreams.
He went to Chapel Hill and attempted to become a walk on—performing a workout for longtime Tar Heel assistant Scott Forbes.
“I did a workout with Coach Forbes, then the next day I was in Coach Fox’s office for a couple hours getting all my classes, moving into the dorm for summer school,” Miller told the assembled crowd of reporters. “I’d never talked to any UNC coaches at all. And I’d grown up with season tickets watching all the Omaha runs—so I was a little starstruck at first, honestly.”
By the time the 2015 regular season arrived, Miller quickly made himself a regular part of the UNC lineup. Without a true position in the field at that point, Fox often inserted him as the designated hitter.
His first career hit came during the team’s second series of the season against national powerhouse UCLA, and its All-American closer David Berg.
From there, Miller would go on to hit .288 and steal 10 bases the rest of his freshman campaign—taking the opportunity to showcase both his quick bat and his quick feet.
At one point that year, Fox joked he didn’t want to talk too much about Miller, calling him the team’s “secret weapon.”
“It’s funny because we watched him for about two weeks, his freshman year [at UNC] and we were like ‘Boy, we really got lucky with this one,'” Fox said. “We could just see in him that in three years this kid could really be good. Fortunately, for us and for him, he’s an unbelievably hard worker.
“He’s gonna be a great story,” the coach added, also praising Miller’s high character and the effort he puts into taking care of his body. “We got lucky with Brian in a number of ways.”
After receiving a scholarship as a sophomore, the rest of the ACC started to take notice of what Fox had only just realized the year before.
UNC’s secret weapon suddenly wasn’t so much of a secret anymore.
Miller led the Tar Heels with a .345 batting average in 2016, while upping his stolen base total to 21 on 26 attempts. He was also one of just two Tar Heels to start at least 54 games, as he moved into a fielding role—switching between first base and the outfield.
The team ultimately came up just short of an NCAA Tournament bid for the second straight season, but Miller stayed hot into the summer.
Playing for the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod Summer League, he was named a league All-Star after finishing third in both batting average and stolen bases.
As a result, he now finds himself on Baseball America’s Top 100 MLB Draft Prospects list (No. 72), the Golden Spikes Award watch list and on many Preseason All-American teams.
Not too shabby for a kid that wasn’t even supposed to be in Chapel Hill to begin with.
“It’s still hard to believe to this day,” Miller said. “As quick as the days go by, it’s hard to go back and think about where I could have been, or what could have happened.
“But when people ask questions like that, I just kind of reminisce on what could have been.”
While it may have been tougher for Miller to relate to some of his more highly-touted classmates upon arriving at UNC, there’s no doubt they each share a common bond at this point.
Since Fox took over as head coach prior to the 1999 season, he has never had a recruiting class go their entire collegiate career without playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Because players who attend college must wait three years to be selected in the MLB draft, that’s typically all coaches will get out of their top guys.
Miller will likely follow that path once this season is over with, but there’s work to be done before then. For as great as Miller’s individual journey has been, he won’t be completely satisfied without experiencing postseason glory.
Looking at a group of writers on Tuesday, some hoping to put that journey into words, he seemed anxious to make sure the ending of this chapter—like so many of his others–is written the way he’s always dreamed it would go.
“I’ve loved UNC since the day I was born,” said. “I’ve always bled Carolina blue so it’s kind of a dream come true, honestly.
“I just hope we can win this year,” he added, before pausing for a brief moment. “That’d make it so much more meaningful than just a cool story.”