CHAPEL HILL, NC – On a crisp February afternoon in 2022, only about 30 miles away at NC State, Tommy White hit 3 home runs in his first game as a college baseball player.

And the legend of Tommy Tanks was born.

It has only grown larger, along with his name, image and likeness income, since transferring to LSU after his freshman season.

Along the way, White has gained cult hero status because of his prodigious power and a flair for the dramatic that was on full display in helping the Tigers win a national championship at last year’s College World Series.

As a projected 1st-round pick in next month’s Major League Draft, the junior third baseman is about to enter the home stretch of his record-setting college career. It’s a journey that has come full circle and could potentially end just a long fly ball from where it started thanks to LSU’s selection as the No. 2 seed in the Chapel Hill Regional.

The Tigers will begin play with an opening-round game against 3rd-seeded Wofford on Friday with a potential showdown against host North Carolina looming a day later.

Because this will be White’s first trip back to North Carolina since leaving the Wolfpack, the spotlight on him promises to be even brighter than usual.

But that just figures to play into his wheelhouse. Showman that he is with his gold chains, shoulder-length hair and beard, and larger-than-life personality, attention is the juice on which Tommy Tanks runs.

As LSU coach Jay Johnson pointed out with a chuckle.

“The guy performed better than anybody on the biggest stage in college baseball last year,” he said.

That he did.

It was White’s 11th-inning home run against another former ACC rival, Wake Forest, that sent the Tigers into the national championship finals last June. He also went deep in Game 1 of that best-of-3 series against Florida while hitting .351 over his 8 games in Omaha.

Just business as usual for a hitter his coach called “special” and said is destined for the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He certainly has the credentials above and beyond his CWS dramatics.

White’s 75 career home runs rank 8th in NCAA history. He is only the 4th out of that group – joining Pete Incaviglia of Oklahoma State, Frank Fazzini of Florida State and George Canale of Virginia Tech – to reach the total in just 3 years and to hit 20 or more dingers in 3 seasons.

He’s the only member of that club to accomplish the feat in the restricted-bat BBCOR era.

White started his assault on the record book by breaking a 32-year-old freshman record by launching 27 homers at NC State before becoming one the most sought-after free agents in the transfer portal.

His reasons for leaving Raleigh depend on whom you ask.

Most likely it was a combination of 2 factors: the opportunity to improve his draft stock by playing third base after being limited to DH duties with the Wolfpack and the 7-figure haul available to him on the open market. A portion of which he has pledged to charity he started to benefit at-risk kids.

White justified the high price tag by hitting 24 homers and driving in 105 runs in his first season in Baton Rouge. He has followed that up with 24 more bombs and 69 RBIs while hitting .337 this season,

“He committed on his (official) visit,” Johnson said. “We still had the full 2nd day to go and I literally climbed over the table at breakfast to bear hug him because I thought I knew how much it would mean that he was choosing to come to LSU. And then he got here.

“I was so far underselling what he has actually meant to us and me as a person. We have a national championship and another 40-win team we think can contend for another one. We have a steep road ahead. But when that guy’s in your lineup every day, you have a chance.”

LSU might be on the road, entering the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed rather than the favorite it was a year ago.

But it’s hardly an underdog. ESPNBet sportsbook gives the Tigers better odds to advance out of the regional at +900 than the host Tar Heels at +1500.

Tommy Tanks’ presence in the lineup undoubtedly has something to do with that.

But if Johnson and his team are hoping to get a scouting report on playing at Boshamer Stadium or against UNC from White, they’re going to be disappointed.

That’s because Friday’s game will be the first he’s ever played at the venue. Three of his 4 previous meetings with the Tar Heels came in Raleigh. The other was at the 2022 ACC Tournament in Charlotte.

White went 6-of-17 (.353) with a homer, a double, 3 RBIs and 3 walks in those games, 3 of which were won by UNC. Not even that experience will be worthy of intel, since the Tar Heels’ lineup has turned over almost completely since then.

“I played against (Vance) Honeycutt. Great player. Great guy,” he said. “Their coach is awesome. I’m not sure who else is over there that I played against, but their program is awesome and they have a great facility. It should be fun. I like the ACC, so it’s all good.”

White has gone out of his way to downplay the return to his college baseball roots and the SEC-ACC comparisons, saying he’s “not trying to make it anything that’s not there.”

At least 1 of his teammates, however, believes he’s looking forward to getting another shot at playing in the Tar Heel State more than he’s letting on.

“He said he hasn’t been back to North Carolina since he transferred, so I’m sure he’s excited to see how this weekend goes,” first baseman Jared Jones said. “Obviously, I think his main concern is advancing to the Super Regional.”

It is.

But as determined as he is to go out with a bang, he’s just as cautious about getting too caught up in the moment. To that end, he’s written the word “Smile” on one of his wristbands and the acronym “DWAT” on the other.

It stands for “don’t worry about a thing,” a not so subtle reminder that while the college baseball world knows him as this mythical character known as Tommy Tanks, he’s still just a kid named Tommy White from St. Pete Beach having fun playing baseball.

“You get on this national level of TV and everything and everyone’s so serious,” he said. “I’m too serious, myself when I play. I get too into it. So I have these little reminders on my wrist to calm me down during the game.

“I just think it’s a great way to express yourself and show who you really are on the field. Because that’s who people really fall in love with, who you are. Not who you’re trying to be.”