05/07/04 — NCISAA baseball preview

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NCISAA baseball preview

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on May 7, 2004 1:56 PM

A team full of underclassmen, including sixth eighth-and ninth-graders combined, wouldn't have high expectations when it begins practice in any sport.

Not the Wayne Christian baseball team.

Despite its tremendous youth, the Eagles listed earning a berth in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Class 1-A tournament as their top priority this season. They easily acquired that goal.

Wayne Christian earned one of 10 at-large bids for the playoffs, which begin either today or Saturday at the higher-seeded team. The 13th-seeded Eagles make their first-ever postseason appearance this afternoon at fourth-seeded Faith Christian of Rocky Mount. Game time is 4:30 p.m.

However, coach Tim Brannan's squad is not the only private school representing Wayne County in the postseason.

Wayne County Day, based on its strength of schedule, procured the final at-large bid and a No. 16 seed. The Chargers travel to defending state champion Waccamaw Academy, the No. 1 seed, for a 7:30 p.m. contest today.

"I don't care about the seed. We're going," second-year WCDS coach Michael Taylor said. "That was my goal from day one. We'll make the best of it and go from there."

Wayne Christian (11-4) claimed the regular-season Carolina Christian title, but lost in the tournament final to Norlina. Norlina jumped to No. 8 in the seeding process.

The tournament loss didn't bother Brannan.

Once it ended, he began focusing the postseason and pondered who the Eagles would play in the opening round. Faith Christian lost to Waccamaw in last year's championship game.

"I don't know a lot about them, but I wish I did," Brannan said. "It's a great opportunity for a young team like us. We're looking forward to going up there and getting some experience in state (tournament play)."

Brannan plans to start Tyler Thomas on the hill against the Patriots. A left-handed sophomore, Thomas is 4-1 with 33 strikeouts in 27 innings pitched this season.

"Tyler has good control of his pitches," Brannan said. "He does a really good job of mixing things up with his fastball, curveball and change-up. I think with him being a lefty gives him an advantage right there."

Freshman Josh Brannan, coach Brannan's nephew, leads the team with a .553 batting average. Sophomore center fielder Billy Smith is next at .424. J.D. Hightower, a junior left fielder and team captain, is batting .429 with a team-high three home runs.

Brannan, regardless of the team's postseason run, couldn't be more pleased with the players' effort this season.

"I've had so much fun watching these guys play hard every game, just really giving it their all," he said. "We are thrilled to be here. It's going to be a good experience for us."

The Chargers (2-12) are making their second consecutive appearance with Taylor as head coach. Waccamaw (22-4) has reached the final four each of the past four seasons, and won state titles in 2001 and 2003.

Wayne Country Day is one of six teams in the playoffs with a losing record. However, Taylor's team has faced nearly half the field in either conference or non-conference play.

"They all had real good ball teams," Taylor said.

Junior right-hander Kevin Logan is expected to throw today against the Warriors, champions of the Southeastern Independence Conference. Logan has seen minimal time on the hill. He threw three innings and recorded five strikeouts against Halifax, and threw two shutout innings against Greenfield.

Taylor plans to throw Travis Davis, a right-handed freshman, in relief.

Spenser Briggs has emerged the Chargers' top hitter this season with an average of .511. Logan is next at .429, followed by eighth-grader Ryan Ford at .356.

Davis is hitting at a .349 clip and senior Shivar Person is close behind at .341. Overall, the Chargers bat .328 as a team and average five runs per outing.

The problem has been defense and unearned runs. At numerous points this season, Taylor has put two eighth-graders and two ninth-graders on the mound. The inexperience has proved crucial, but it's also provided a solid building foundation for next season.

"I know Waccamaw hits the ball extremely well," Taylor said. "They've got good pitchers and they play great defense. They beat Rocky Mount Academy twice.

"We have to play error-free baseball to stay in the game and get timely hits when we need them. All we are going to do is play inning by inning."

All five Coastal Plains Independent Conference schools qualified for the postseason. Regular-season champ Rocky Mount Academy is the No. 2 seed overall, while Faith Christian is fourth and Greenfield School is fifth. Kerr-Vance Academy earned a spot in the 2-A playoffs.

Six conferences received automatic bids through regular-season or tournament play. The final 10 at-large spots were awarded based on strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and records against common opponents in the playoffs.