06/13/04 — News-Argus Baseball pitcher of the year Ñ Ashton Langston, Southern Wayne

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News-Argus Baseball pitcher of the year Ñ Ashton Langston, Southern Wayne

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on June 13, 2004 2:01 AM

DUDLEY -- Ashton Langston didn't think he'd get too many innings on the hill the season. He expected to settle into a possible closer role and be a leader out of the bullpen.

After all, Chris Pearsall, Southern Wayne's top returning pitcher, owned the No. 1 slot in the pitching rotation. But an injury placed Pearsall on the disabled list for an extended period of time, and Langston grabbed a starting spot.

Langston admitted he and his teammates encountered a few bumps in the road. The Saints struggled to convert the big plays or get timely hits and the frustration mounted as they dropped their first five games against Class 3-A Eastern Carolina Conference opposition.

A midseason incident among teammates forced some changes, and that's when Langston thought the team began to mature. Southern Wayne reversed its early-season misfortunes and slowly climbed back into the postseason race.

"We had a few bumps in the road, but our team was strong enough to overlook that," Langston said. "It was pretty difficult, but people stepped up when they needed to and we did all right."

All right, indeed.

The Saints won nine of their final 11 conference games and forced a play-in game against county rival Charles B. Aycock. They emerged victorious and seized their second consecutive postseason berth in the last three years.

As a right-handed rising junior, Langston had helped his teammates beat the odds. He collected nearly two-thirds of his wins during that stretch as the Saints marched into the playoffs. For his efforts, Langston is the 2004 News-Argus baseball pitcher of the year.

"I did better than I expected I would," Langston said. "I was well coached by Coach (Trae) McKee and Coach (Brad) Reaves. They did a lot with me; mainly a few changes to my pitching."

Langston struggled with control in his 6-foot-5, 160-pound frame. He had good speed on his curveball, change-up and fastball, but he lacked the accuracy. Hitting spots wasn't a strength and that needed to improve against some of the ECC's top hitters.

McKee and Reaves taught Langston to get more control from his change-up by dragging his back foot and not lifting it. They shortened his stride on his three-quarter curveball so he would come more over the top in his delivery. And his fastball, a submarine-style throw, became more effective as well.

"Without my height, I wouldn't be able to get any velocity on the ball that I have now, which is not very much," Langston said. "It was all for the better."

Langston received much-needed support from Pearsall as well. Despite his injury, Pearsall remained a leader and helped tutor Langston between innings and in practice. The two developed a strong comradery, which also boosted Langston's pride when he took the mound.

"He was always telling me what a good job I was doing," said Langston, who produced an 8-3 record. "It helped a lot knowing that people were behind me and helping me out ... giving me confidence."

Langston's teammates gained confidence, too. They began doing the little things behind him defensively. They minimized their errors on ground balls and rarely beat themselves during their amazing second-half run. Hits occurred in a timely fashion and led to big victories including a regular-season sweep of archrival Eastern Wayne and a split against Aycock.

Southern Wayne kept its poise and forced the playoff-qualifying game against Aycock. The Saints fell behind early, but maintained their poise and answered a first-inning challenge with a three-run outburst. They claimed a 5-1 win and hushed those inner demons which chased them in March and early April.

"After that incident, everyone became tighter and started playing more like a family," Langston said. "That's why we got as far as we did. We had a young team and I believed anything could happen.

"Nobody expected us to win that playoff game. We did it."

And proved that playing as a team could lead to a rewarding season.