02/17/06 — Locked and loaded - Heels' Wooten ready to pitch this season

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Locked and loaded - Heels' Wooten ready to pitch this season

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on February 17, 2006 2:24 PM

CHAPEL HILL -- During his high school pitching career at Charles B. Aycock, right-hander Rob Wooten brought home his fair share of awards.

Wooten, who helped lead the Golden Falcons to the Class 3-A eastern regional final in his junior and senior years, won a team MVP, Pitcher of the Year, and was All-Conference three times before he gradated in 2003.

One trophy he never received was Most Improved. That is, until now.

After missing his entire freshman year after tearing his labrum in the summer of 2003, Wooten made just nine appearances and worked just 141/3 innings for the Tar Heels in 2005 as his shoulder slowly recovered.

This offseason, he stepped up his workouts and honed a new pitch in his arsenal -- a split-finger change-up. Just as important, he became more mentally focused on being a successful pitcher at the collegiate level.

His coach, Mike Fox, took notice.

"We give the Most Improved award every fall, and this year we gave it to Rob. His arm is getting back to 100 percent. He's getting over that mental hurdle after arm surgery, and he threw well this fall," said Fox, now in his eighth year at UNC. "Unfortunately, he had the setback. It's been a long road, but he's been a different kid recently. He's focused and has an intensity with his workouts."

Sure, Wooten's finally 100-percent healthy, but he's not letting up now.

The redshirt sophomore is on a competitive staff with an eye-popping three preseason All-Americans -- left-handers Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller and righty Robert Woodard. All three are juniors, as is set-up man Matt Danford. Senior closer Jonathan Clovis rounds out arguably the best group of pitchers not only in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but in the nation.

"Those guys push you, because you want to play at their level. I think I'm getting close to their level," Wooten said. "I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I'm going to help the team as much as I can."

On such a loaded staff and on a team ranked No. 6 in the nation in Baseball America's preseason poll, where will Wooten fit in? It's early, but Fox is confident Wooten will easily eclipse his outings from 2005 and could potentially be UNC's fourth or fifth starter.

"He and two other pitchers, Luke Putkonen and Adam Warren are in the mix for the fourth or fifth starter role. Sometimes we need that with two mid-week games," Fox said. "They've been battling to grab that role. The one that doesn't, will come out of the bullpen. He (Wooten) wants to get in the mix this year certainly and be one of the guys we have confidence in.

"If you go out and prove you can get it done and not be intimidated, we'll run you out there."

Wooten admits his collegiate experience has been a learning process. Since suffering the injury, then pitching at about 80 percent as a red-shirt freshman, Wooten discovered a few things. He now knows he can't blow most hitters away with his fastball, so he continued to develop his hard slider and split-change. He now believes the splitter, a pitch he picked up after coming back from surgery, is one of his best pitches.

On top of that, practice indeed, pays off.

"You have to prepare yourself everyday at practice. Everything goes into the game. If you're not focused, you'll get beat around pretty bad," he said. "I'm a lot more focused this year than my freshman year, and last year, I was kind of down because my arm wasn't right. This year, I came in the fall and I'm feeling great. I'm focused on earning a spot, and I think I've done that. It feels great to do that for a university like this and a team like this."

In six of Fox's seven seasons, the Heels have won at least 40 games and have advanced to the NCAA regionals. It's been over 15 years since UNC has advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Wooten hopes he can be a contributor in helping the Heels get back to college baseball's mecca.

"It's a dream. Everyone that plays college baseball dreams of going to Omaha. If we go, I want to win it. It will be a dream come true," he said.