A Profile on Michael Russell
Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are placed on a pedestal making the players seem above the rest of Carolina students. Luckily, many of the Carolina student athletes see themselves as just like every other Tar Heel.
Michael Russell is a 20-year-old sophomore from Huntersville, N.C. At first glance, the management and society major seems like an average UNC student.
This presumption could not be further from the truth.
Russell is on the varsity baseball team for Chapel Hill, often called the Diamond Heels, and wears the number five. He began his second season with the Diamond Heels just a week ago on Feb. 15 on their Opening Day in Boshamer Stadium.
After winning their first three games, the Diamond Heels have had a strong start to the season. The Tar Heels hold the No. 1 spot in the NCAA Division I baseball rankings, close to the position they held this time in the season last year.
They have made appearances in 5 out of the last 7 College World Series of Omaha — the ultimate dream of every collegiate baseball player — but have not won one before.
Russell said that preparation for this season has been non-stop since Day 1 on campus this school year with practice on the field as well as in the weight room.
“We are all trying to get bigger, faster and stronger,” he said about their pre-season goals. “After working out together first semester, we go home with a personalize plan to help each of us.”
UNC baseball players have practice six days a week — and also have to manage their schoolwork. Players need to be out of class by noon, and are in practice for the rest of the afternoon until the evening. After practice Russell spends time on homework until he goes to bed, only to repeat the routine when he wakes up the next day.
“Balancing everything is the toughest thing about being an athlete,” Russell said. “You have no free time — if you aren’t playing baseball, you’re doing homework or catching up on sleep.”
This season’s schedule is good for the players’ schedules because there are not many away games during the week.
Weekends, on the other hand, are not breaks for the Diamond Heels — they play every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and will continue to do so until May.
Russell is familiar with being a student athlete: born in Roswell, Ga., Michael has played baseball every year since he was four years old. His family moved from Georgia to Huntersville, N.C. the summer before he started second grade but that didn’t stop him from continuing his career on the field.
He played on the baseball team at Francis Bradley Middle School and went on to play varsity baseball at Hopewell High School all four years of high school.
He has played shortstop for the entirety of his baseball career.
The shortstop stands between second and third base. The position is an important defensive stance in the game and many balls will be hit to the shortstop over the course of a game.
The first game of his junior year season at Hopewell, Russell was met with an obstacle that would stop him from playing at all during the season — a broken leg. Giving up baseball wasn’t an option to Russell, even in the face of this devastating injury.
At the beginning of the following year, Russell recalls having pain but he felt 100 percent back to normal at the beginning of baseball season.
Russell said that the injury healed completely and hasn’t stood in the way of his baseball career since his junior year of high school.
He said he has wanted baseball to be a part of his life as long as it could be.
“Whenever I found out you could play in college — probably around the time I found out what college was,” Russell said about when he knew he wanted to play collegiate baseball.
Luckily, he was met with a great opportunity despite of being out of the game for an entire year. Russell committed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to play baseball in October of his senior year.
“I was the last person to commit to Carolina. Most people have committed by their junior year,” Russell said.
Committing to Carolina lifted a weight off of his shoulders, Michael recalled, remembering how he went into his senior year of baseball to play and have fun.
The Tar Heels recruited Russell to be a member of the team, not necessarily to be the designated shortstop. He actually started his freshman season with the Diamond Heels playing outfield. In the back of his mind, he had his eyes on playing shortstop, but was happy to be in the games at all.
Russell was eventually moved to the position he always wanted to play: shortstop.
Getting to play his first year on the baseball team is a big accomplishment — being successful in the position he enjoys is just an incentive.
Russell says that he doesn’t get anxious or nervous before games, but he gets butterflies in his stomach. He says it is combination of excitement mixed with a few nerves — but in a good way.
North Carolina baseball was ranked in the top five in preseason polls last year as well, but the change from high school baseball to college baseball was still a little intimidating. Russell didn’t falter at the challenge, he stepped up whenever his coach needed him to go in the game.
Russell says that the team has been preparing for this season and their ultimate goal is to attend the College World Series. This strong start to the season is the right way the Diamond Heels wanted to begin the season are hopeful that the season goes well.
The Diamond Heels are a force to be reckoned with this season. Their next game is this Friday, February 22 at home in Boshamer Stadium against Stony Brook.
Despite the rigorous, time-consuming schedule he is following Russell said playing baseball at UNC is better than he could have imagined,
“It is all worth it,” he said. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”