Follow the Leader

What Benton Moss means to Carolina baseball can’t be overstated.

Benton Moss grew up on the family farm, 20 miles outside Rocky Mount, in southern Halifax County, on the line separating the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont.

“Half our farm is rolling; half is flat as a pancake,” says Benton’s father, Tom, who was also raised on the land. “If you stand on Highway 48 and look west, the hills start to roll; if you stand on Highway 48 and look east, it flattens out to the coast.”

Consisting of 1,400 acres, the farm has a bit of everything: pastures, cows, trees, crops. During deer season, hunting clubs roam the land for three days at a time.

These days, the Mosses don’t farm the land themselves. Tom works as a landscape architect, in shoreline restoration, and his wife, Ashley, works in sales and marketing for a nearby company. Tom and Ashley attended the same high school, were a few years apart in age, and married after each finished college. They believe that raising Benton and his two younger sisters on the farm, away from distraction, has been a huge benefit to their kids.

“People always say, ‘You live so far away,’” says Ashley. “But it was the perfect amount of space. The nearest Harris Teeter, in Rocky Mount, is 18 minutes away. We can get the kids from home to school in 20 minutes. That separation, particularly on the way home from school, really gives you time to take a deep breath—to step back from the busyness of your everyday schedule. It gives you a buffer from distraction.”

During his time at Carolina, no student has had more potential distractions than the seasoned right-hander, who enters his senior season as the unquestioned leader of the 2015 Tar Heels. For Benton, baseball is just one interest on an endless list of interests that has occupied his time while in Chapel Hill. It’s well-documented that he’s a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a double-major in economics and business; a stalwart of Carolina Outreach, the student-athlete organization that gives back to the local community in myriad ways; a faith-driven Christian who has traveled overseas to serve others in need; and even a musician, playing both piano and guitar, with the goal of having a little “spare change” for a personal recording studio one day.

Despite all his commitments, Benton has somehow managed to remain focused.

Despite all his commitments, Benton has somehow managed to remain focused. He credits his ability to handle all his responsibilities—to performing nothing short of a four-year high-wire act at Carolina—to his parents and his upbringing on the farm.

“I think about it a lot,” he says. “Living on the farm made me more independent. I wasn’t distracted by the things that other people were. I had the best of both worlds. I could hang out with my friends in and around Rocky Mount, but at the end of the day I was able to come home, be around my family, and get away from things if I needed to.”

It’s logical to think that Benton, especially as a young player learning the game, wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to hone the craft of pitching that other kids, in more populated areas, have. He might not have had the equal access to coaching or been able to play enough backyard baseball with friends to keep up his skills. But he believes his rural background provided him precisely what he needed to develop the mindset required to become a pitcher.

“The human body is not necessarily made for repetition 100 times over,” says Moss. “Being able to perfect the craft like that is a tough thing to do, but dedicating yourself to it—or to anything you’re trying to perfect—is something that you can carry with you into anything in life. I feel like I was able to become strong mentally and learn to really focus in on that dedication at a young age.”

Among the many traits Benton has carried with him to Chapel Hill from southern Halifax County is a competitive edge. His pitching coach at Carolina, Scott Forbes, says that people don’t talk enough about how competitive Benton is. Tom Moss says that, if anything, because he and his wife are competitive people, they’ve tried to make their kids a little less competitive.

Ashley, in fact, was a highly ranked tennis player in North Carolina and the southeast while in high school. Tom took basketball seriously from the time he was a boy until his kids were born. When he was in high school, dozens of kids from the area would come to the farm almost daily for pickup games on the court Benton’s grandfather built. Some nights, particularly on Sundays, they would compete until midnight. Among the regulars was Delaney Rudd, a Halifax County native who went on to play at Wake Forest and eventually in the NBA, and one of the many who helped Tom become a pretty serious player.

As Benton was growing up, however, because he’d set his sights on baseball, he needed someone to throw with regularly. When he was young, Tom and Ashley filled that role.

“Benton learned to throw with us,” Tom says. “We were his playmates, which helped him in Little League. His mom and I would go out in the yard with him and we’d throw like adults. He learned not to be afraid of the ball and to catch and throw like an adult earlier than other kids.”

Although Benton took a ball off his nose the first time he went out to throw with his dad, it didn’t take long before he was throwing breaking balls with their neighbor, the local sheriff, and his brother, who was a coach. They taught Benton how to throw pitches with movement, without hurting his elbow.

For Benton, who grew up playing basketball and soccer as well, there was nothing quite like being a pitcher. When he was five years old he told his dad he wanted to pitch because he would be involved in every play—good or bad, there’s never a time when you’re not part of a play. As he gained experience and learned more about baseball, he started to enjoy the pressure that came along with being a pitcher.

“A lot rides on the pitcher,” Benton says. “It’s a pressure position. I like that. You have to be able to focus a whole lot more. Some position guys, whether they’ll tell you or not, might not be focused every single pitch of the game, but a pitcher doesn’t have that luxury. You have to be focused on every pitch and every action. It’s an intense position and it has always appealed to me.”

As Benton begins his senior season, he isn’t feeling as much pressure as he did as a younger player. Over the summer, he turned down an opportunity to play professionally with the San Francisco Giants organization. After making the decision, he was relieved because it allowed him to focus on one thing: his senior season.

“This year, some of the pressure is off,” he says. “Junior year is the year when you feel the pressure of performing well for other reasons—and if you’re good enough, you either turn professional or you don’t. Now that I’m a senior and I’ve made a decision, thinking about the next level doesn’t matter anymore. The pressure that comes with that is off. I’m so much more relaxed.”

The seasoned veteran on the team, bringing four years of starting experience and a proven durability and reliability that have been hallmarks of his Carolina career, Benton will be one of the three returning starters from the regular 2014 weekend rotation. As Benton focuses on areas of improvement in his pitching, he’s excited to continue to build on his leadership and to try to recreate the positive chemistry he experienced two years ago, during his sophomore year in Chapel Hill.

“My attitude has been, ‘How can I encourage these guys, help bring them through the ranks, teach them, and give them knowledge to help them learn?’” he says. “I want to be the guy that the younger guys come to with a question, whether it’s about making sure their academics are in order or getting down pitching signs. I want to be that guy that anyone can come to with anything and become a positive spark that can build on itself in the locker room.”

From a leadership perspective, pitching coach Scott Forbes couldn’t be more excited to have him back.

“You can’t replace a guy like Benton,” says Forbes. “He reminds me a lot of Adam Warren, who was here and got drafted his junior year but came back and had a great senior year. There are two types of seniors—the ones who come back and are all-in and the ones who are still thinking about their decision. There was no question which one Benton would be. We didn’t want to get our hopes up too much that we would have him back, but as soon as he told us he was coming back, personally, I couldn’t have been more excited and more pumped because I get to coach him another year and just be around him.”

Benton understands that he’ll need to continue on his path to becoming a more complete pitcher if he wants to help his team reach Omaha this year. Some may think he needs to throw harder to become more dominant, but neither Benton nor Forbes is concerned about increasing velocity.

“The bottom line, at this level, is that you have to be able to pitch,” says Forbes. “People get caught up in the radar gun. Benton has always been able to strike people out—that’s always been a big weapon for him if he gets in trouble. But our goal is for him to stay out of trouble and help him become more of a pitcher.”

To that end, Forbes has been working with Benton on getting ahead in the count and establishing a new cutter.

“Last year, he was cutting the ball quite a bit and we couldn’t figure out why,” says Forbes. “We figured it out in the fall and now he’s added the pitch, which will be an asset to him this season… We want him to be ahead in counts, keep his pitch count down, and get to two strikes quicker. If he stays away from the 3-2 counts, his strikeouts will go up because the hitter is going to chase more two-strike pitches. He’s going to keep hitters off-balance.”

Entering the 2015 season, the two have stressed pitching to his strengths rather than to hitters’ weaknesses and getting angle on his fastballs. Forbes also wants Benton to be wary of overthinking things, something Forbes thinks Benton did too often early in his career.

“It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, I wanted one more season at Carolina.”

“Sports are so much about being in the moment—living in that moment and diving into it and giving everything you got,” Forbes says. “But as a pitcher, it’s about you and the hitter and it’s about competing, and generally the guy who can control his emotions better than the other guy is the guy that comes out on top. When emotions get the best of you, you make mistakes. Benton has learned about that every single year: don’t overthink, attack the hitter, pitch to his strengths. If he’ll continue to do that and just compete, he’ll improve.”

Although Benton admits that forgoing the opportunity to jump to professional baseball with the San Francisco Giants organization was a difficult decision, he is relishing his senior year in Chapel Hill, and he has no regrets about returning to Carolina to finish what he started.

“It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, I wanted one more season at Carolina,” he says. “I wanted to have a senior year, a potential last shot at Omaha, to walk with my classmates and finish up my two degrees. I value all those things, and it’s tough to put a monetary value on them.”

Coach Forbes believes that Moss’s decision will have a ripple effect throughout the team, helping the younger players value the moments they have at Carolina and helping them understand the importance of putting in their work every day so that they don’t squander the last opportunities for seniors like Moss.

“When your senior turns down the opportunity to play pro ball for an organization like the Giants, he’s sending a message,” says Forbes. “He’s saying, ‘Hey, this is it for me. This is my last year wearing the University of North Carolina uniform, and I’m not going to let you screw it up. You need to make sure your stuff is in order and you’re doing the right thing because you’re not going to be a distraction.’”

Forbes insists that the return of a player like Moss not only helps the younger guys by giving them a mature presence throughout the season, but it also helps the coaching staff.

“Instead of us having to monitor how guys are handling their business, Benton and Chris McCue and others are doing it,” Forbes continues. “We had that type of leadership in 2013 and it helped the coaching staff a lot. We were able to concentrate on what’s going on between the white lines and on coaching baseball.”

“He’s unlike any other young person I’ve been around in my 32 years of coaching.”

What Benton Moss means to Carolina baseball can’t be overstated. His contributions go beyond ERA and wins and losses. When head coach Mike Fox talks about what Benton means to the Tar Heels, he talks about the sheet of paper each player fills out at the beginning of every season. It’s more or less a questionnaire asking players to name the top three leaders on the team in areas including who has the most influence on the team, who you trust the most, who cares about his teammates, who builds confidence, who holds teammates accountable, who has the best attitude, and so on. Every player names Benton in every single category.

“They have unbelievable respect for him,” says Fox. “And they should. He’s unlike any other young person I’ve been around in my 32 years of coaching. It’s somewhat hard to describe. It’s easy for me to say just that he’s unbelievably smart, mature, totally gets it. Outside of his pitching and his commitment to being a leader, he’s just been unbelievably blessed, and the great thing about it is that he knows it. He’s been involved in everything at UNC. He’s going to be able to look back on his career here and not have one regret… I’m in awe of the kid… I’m tickled to death that he’s back for his senior season in a number of ways. Just being around him benefits everybody, his teammates and his coaches.”

This article is from the March 2015 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

Inside Carolina Top Stories