01/21/05 — OPINION - Coming soon: The Boys of summer

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OPINION - Coming soon: The Boys of summer

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on January 21, 2005 1:56 PM

Can you hear it? The roar from the crowd? The umpire calling a strike? A concession worker walking the stands shouting "popcorn, peanuts!" The familiar crack of the wooden bat or "tink" of the aluminum as a batter connects with the sweet spot?

These sounds are closer than you think.

In less than two months -- two months -- baseball on the collegiate and high school levels will start. In less than three, the minor and major league seasons kick off.

It seems like just yesterday we were watching the Boston Red Sox accomplish the improbable against the most-storied baseball franchise in sports history. Then they achieved the pinnacle in their sport and rewarded die-hard fans -- who had waited 80-plus years -- with a World Series title.

Admittedly, baseball has become jaded with the off-season bickering involving BALCO and steroids. But, if you look deep into the heart of our national past-time, you still see the fervor and excitement that carries the players -- and fans -- to the ballpark every day. I'm referring to the little league, high school and college players who battle on the diamond because they love the game -- and most importantly, want to be there.

The spring season certainly holds great promise.

* Princeton returns nearly its entire starting lineup from a year ago when it fell to South Stokes in the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 1-A championship series. The Bulldogs improved their hitting in the offseason, which should support their pitching staff -- expected to be among the best in the East.

* C.B. Aycock is loaded with pitching, boasting three Wayne County Post 11 hurlers -- Adam Williams, Grant Sasser and Garrett Davis.

* Southern Wayne didn't suffer any significant losses to graduation and returns Ashton Langston -- the 2004 News-Argus Pitcher of the Year.

* Eastern Wayne will be competitive as usual, and should receive great leadership from Jesse Lancaster and Airlon Vinson. That duo played an integral part in Post 11's run to the Area I East Division title last summer.

* Graduation depleted Spring Creek and Rosewood, but don't think those two teams won't make some noise. By late April, the Gators and Eagles will probably be in the thick of the Class 1-A Carolina Conference race.

If you're a college baseball fan, you've got Mount Olive and East Carolina within driving distance.

* Mount Olive is coming off a successful season, but got snubbed by the selection committee for the NCAA Division II Regionals a year ago. The Trojans return a young, but experienced pitching staff and will look to replace power hitters Stevie Parrish and Craig Hurba. If the offense and defense give adequate support to the pitchers, then Mount Olive should emerge as a postseason contender again.

* East Carolina collected a school-record 51 victories last season and just missed advancing to the College World Series in Omaha. The Pirates return 17 lettermen from last year's squad and welcome 12 newcomers.

Missing from that mix will be former C.B. Aycock standout Dustin Sasser. The left-hander had shoulder surgery in the offseason and will not be in the pitching rotation this spring.

ECU emerged the lone CUSA team to record 50-plus victories last season. The Pirates are picked to finish third behind Tulane, ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, and TCU this season.

The Pirates open their season on the road Feb. 11 at College of Charleston. They christen their newly-constructed Clark-LeClair Stadium on March 4 when host the second annual Keith LeClair Classic. This year's field includes Arizona State, Georgia, Michigan, UNC and Ohio State.

* Not too far down the road, the Kinston Indians will begin defense of their Mills Cup Championship in April. Year in and out, they possess some of the best talent in the Single A Carolina League. Most of those players usually wind up with Cleveland's Double A or Triple A affiliates and on occasion one or two will make it to the Big Show.

Can you imagine that within a 40-mile radius of Goldsboro you have some of the best prep, collegiate and pro talent playing baseball?

I can hear it now.

"Peanuts, popcorn! ..."

(News-Argus sports writer Rudy Coggins can be reached at rcoggins@newsargus.com.)