06/04/04 — Pirates ready for 'home flavor' when regional begins today

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Pirates ready for 'home flavor' when regional begins today

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on June 4, 2004 1:56 PM

GREENVILLE -- Up for grabs.

It's the best way to describe the four-team Kinston regional which begins this afternoon at historic Grainger Stadium -- just one stop on the way to College World Series in Omaha.

Top-seeded East Carolina will play host to the four-team event which gets underway this afternoon. In-state rival UNC Wilmington, the No. 3 seed, opposes second-seeded Tennessee. The Pirates (48-11) face America East champion Stony Brook (28-25) at 7 p.m.

"It should be fun coming back in front of the home crowd and I think we'll be ready to play," Pirates freshman Dustin Sasser said. "We don't know much about Stony Brook, but we're ready to play them and take it one game at a time."

The Pirates stumbled out of the gate and were 1-3 after their first four Conference USA games. They rebounded to take two of three contests against Memphis and then swept six consecutive conference series 3-0. When TCU rolled into Greenville in mid-May, the Pirates were on the verge of winning their first-ever regular-season CUSA title.

They clinched a share of the championship against TCU and then polished off Southern Miss on the road. A team that appeared shaky had completed one of its numerous preseason goals.

"That is when we were playing our best baseball," Sasser said. "Our pitching and hitting was in synch and our defense was almost perfect. We've got good pitching depth, good hitting and one of the best defenses in the nation.

"It's pretty unstoppable when they all come together."

Fatigue played an adversarial role against the Pirates in the season-ending Conference USA tournament. They took care of business against eighth-seeded Louisville in the opening round, but lost to Houston and eventual champion TCU in their next two outings.

The back-to-back defeats, a rarity for the Pirates this season, concluded a six-game road swing.

"We got a little sluggish and I think we were a little tired in the conference tournament," Sasser said.

Once the 16 regional sites and 64-team field had been released, Sasser and his teammates became rejuvenated. They're relishing the opportunity to play near their Greenville campus.

UNC Wilmington (38-21) ended the Pirates' 19-game win streak on May 4. The teams split their home-and-away series this season with each winning on the other team's home diamond. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have won 17 of their last 22 games including their first-ever Colonial Athletic Conference championship.

Tennessee came into Kinston in 2001 and swept the Pirates in the best-of-three super regional. The Volunteers (37-22) entered the Southeastern Conference tournament as the No. 8 seed and survived long enough to receive an at-large bid.

"A couple of seniors who are here remember that," Sasser said.

Designated hitter Ryan Jones, the CUSA player of the year, leads the Pirates with a .402 average. Jones earned a spot on the Louisville Slugger All-American First Team, which was announced Thursday by Collegiate Baseball.

Jones leads the nation in slugging percentage (.834) with 46 extra-base hits -- 24 doubles, four triples and 18 home runs. He leads the team in RBI (66) and is a semifinalist for the 2004 Dick Howser Trophy.

Fellow Pirates Ryan Norwood, Trevor Lawhorn and Greg Bunn picked up third-team All-American honors.

Norwood has 43 extra-base hits, including 13 home runs, and has 18 multiple-RBI games to his credit. Lawhorn tied the school record by homering in six consecutive games from March 28-April 9 and ranks second on the team in RBI (64). Bunn, a right-handed pitcher, has four shutouts this season and carries a 9-0 record into the regional. Opponents are hitting .196 against the junior from Wake Forest.

East Carolina is 31-4 in home games this season, including a 3-1 record at Grainger Stadium.

"At the beginning of the season, we didn't expect to be where we are now," Sasser said. "If you had told me in December we'd have a top ten team and hosting a regional, I wouldn't have believed it.

"You couldn't ask for much more. I think it's going to be a great atmosphere (in Kinston). Everyone is excited and we've worked for this all year -- fall, winter and this spring. We're ready to take care of business."