Great expectations and big league projections followed him after a historic freshman season, but they haven’t slowed down star shortstop
It wasn’t the start to the 2022 baseball season that Zach Neto and his Camel teammates were hoping for. A 1-6 mark through seven games — hardly the anticipated follow-up to last season’s Big South regular season championship and impressive performance in the NCAA Regional.
Campbell managed to crawl back to a more respectable 6-7 record before its trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, to face a nationally ranked Liberty team riding an 11-game winning streak.
It was in Lynchburg where Neto found his stroke, taking pitchers deep three times in the two-game series, including one 420-plus-foot blast that cleared the “pitcher’s eye” in centerfield. Through April 17, Neto is hitting a team-best .361 with 6 home runs and 21 RBI, and the Camels are sitting alone atop the Big South standings at 11-1 while riding one of the longest winning streaks in the nation (at 12 through Easter Sunday, with eight games in a row scoring 10 or more runs).
After the slow start, Campbell is (literally) in mid-season form.
Zach Neto is once again a huge reason for the success. He’s doing this despite the enormous burden of expectation that followed him after his freshman season.
“It’s all about taking what I was able to do last year — and taking the work I put into it over the summer and fall — and making it all translate while also taking on more of a leadership role,” Neto said earlier in the spring, just days before the Camels’ opener. “Last year, I was being brought up by leaders, and it’s on me to fill those boots and be there for this team and for our younger guys.”
That freshman season was special, among the best in all of college baseball in 2021. Neto started all 44 games and made starts at shortstop, first, second, third and pitcher. He hit a stellar .405 with a .746 slugging and .488 on base percentage, and that batting average was good for 13th in the nation (and was second in the nation for players who also pitched). In his 37 Big South games, the numbers were even better — .442 average and an above .500 on base percentage.
He was at his best on the biggest stage — the Starkville Regional in Mississippi where Neto hit two home runs in wins over Samford and Virginia Commonwealth, and Campbell came within a run of besting host Mississippi State in the final (the Bulldogs would go on to win it all, with few teams giving them the trouble Campbell presented).
At season’s end, the accolades poured in: Big South Player of the Year, Starkville All Tournament Team, NCBWA second-team All-American, NCBWA second-team Freshman All-American, third-team Baseball America Freshman All-American and ABCA/Rawlings third-team All-American. And before a pitch was thrown in 2022, Neto was tabbed as the preseason Big South Player of the Year and named to the Golden Spikes Award preseason watch list — the winner at year’s end is considered the nation’s top amateur player by USA Baseball.
Neto describes 2021 as a season that just “clicked” for him. He actually made his first appearance in a Camel uniform in 2020, but that season lasted just 16 games before COVID-19 put a halt to all collegiate sports, and Neto played in only three of those games. But he took advantage of the downtime and not only trained, but added muscle to his wiry frame. He entered 2021 a new man.
“It took a few games, but once I started getting on a roll and getting multiple hits per game, I feel like that’s when it started to feel like a special year,” he says. “It got to the point where the ball looked like a beach ball, and everything I swung at, I was connecting. Suddenly, I’m on a 20-game hit streak, and it’s just all crazy. But what I’ll remember most about the season is how my coaches and my teammates helped me all the way through it and kept me humble about it. I wasn’t thinking about hit streaks or batting averages — I was just going out there and having fun with my teammates. They make it easy for me — it’s just awesome playing with them.”
To see where Neto’s game is today, it might surprise some to know he wasn’t exactly “highly touted” by Division 1 baseball programs coming out of high school — this despite being a three-time all-district player and second-team All-American who hit .442 as a junior while playing for the talent-rich Coral Park High School in Miami, the former high school of Major Leaguers Jose and Ozzie Canseco (and high school to music superstar Pitbull).
Campbell recruiters first caught a glimpse of his game at a showcase scrimmage in North Carolina, and they followed him a few weeks later to watch him play in Georgia. Head coach Justin Haire and former assistant Chris Marx (now at Purdue) approached Neto in Georgia to introduce themselves and the Campbell program, which has risen to become one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last 10 years.
“I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is serious now,’” Neto recalls. “They told me about the program, and then they brought me up a few weeks later for a visit — I was able to see the school and the facilities, and it really opened my eyes. Everything Coach Haire said back in Georgia was true.”
Neto says he came to Campbell with a lot of cockiness, and one thing the program has taught him was the importance of relying on teammates and putting the team before the player. Buies Creek was a bit of a culture shock for a kid coming from Miami, but Neto says he fell in love with the school and the town — he enjoys the quiet … it keeps him grounded and “out of trouble.”
The 2021 season didn’t end with a Big South tournament win and automatic NCAA bid — Campbell was upset by Presbyterian in the final. But the program still earned an at-large bid (a bit rare for smaller schools), and after an opening game loss to VCU in the Starkville Regional, the Camels went on a bit of an offensive tear with 35 runs in two games before that heartbreaking loss to the national champs in the final game. Neto’s performance in Mississippi — on nationally televised games with scouts everywhere to be seen — got him on a lot of watch lists. Heading into this season, he’s projected to go as high as the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft this summer (should he choose to go pro).
If drafted, Neto will join a stable of Camels who’ve got to the next level in recent years — 12 players in the last nine years, with four of them (Matt Marksberry, Jake Smith, Ryan Thompson and Cedric Mullins) seeing big league action. Thompson appeared in the World Series with Tampa, and Mullins was an All-Star starter and had the first 30 home run, 30 stolen base season in Baltimore Orioles history last year.
Neto isn’t thinking about the summer or what’s ahead just yet. His team is rolling, and there’s another conference championship to be had and an NCAA regional to win.
Written in permanent marker under the bill of his ballcap are the words, “Don’t think. Have fun.” It’s a solid approach to a season where everyone’s watching his every move.
“Just compete, have fun with my teammates and don’t let anything get in my head,” he says. “Just take it one day at a time, and whatever happens, happens. And we’re going to be alright.”