05/01/11 — County baseball rivals begin ECC tournament title quest Tuesday

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County baseball rivals begin ECC tournament title quest Tuesday

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on May 1, 2011 1:51 AM

Charles B. Aycock has accomplished one goal. Eastern Wayne still has an objective, while Southern Wayne has built some confidence.

There isn't a clear-cut favorite when the sixth installment of the Eastern Carolina 3-A Conference tournament launches Tuesday in the communities of Dudley, New Hope and LaGrange. But you can bet the six-day, single-elimination event will be extremely competitive.

The second-seeded Saints (14-6) entertain seventh-seeded Cleveland. The third-seeded Warriors (12-7) welcome sixth-seeded Triton, while fourth-seeded North Lenoir (13-7) plays host to fifth-seeded South Johnston.

The top-seeded Golden Falcons (17-5 overall) drew an opening-round bye and have secured the automatic bid to the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs. They've captured four of five tournament crowns, including the 2010 title.

"The conference tournament, I like it simply because it gives us more games to play in competitive situations, and gets us prepared for the playoffs," said Aycock head coach Charles Davis. "The pressure is not on us to win the conference tournament. We'll try to go out, play and continue to get better and get ready for the big picture which is the state playoffs."

The second-seeded Saints haven't won an ECC championship of any kind since tying with Aycock for regular-season supremacy in 2006.

Southern Wayne (14-6) won five of its last six ECC regular-season games and went 1-1 in the Pitt County Spring Invitational.

"We've been playing some good baseball here lately and gotten some confidence," said Saints head coach Trae McKee. "I feel good about our team right now. Hopefully we can continue to do the little things that help sets the table for a big inning.

"We've been executing bunts, hits-and-runs and taking some walks."

The Saints have scored 10 or more runs in five of their last seven official outings. They slugged two homers and put 14 runs on the board against No. 4-ranked Wilson Hunt on Tuesday, but a late-afternoon thunderstorm forced suspension of the game in the bottom of the fifth inning.

"If we're disciplined and stay off border-line pitches, then most of the time we've been capitalizing on pitches that we can hit hard and are not missing them," said McKee. "If we go outside the strike zone and chase pitches, we become very average."

Denied a chance to four-peat as the ECC regular-season champion, Eastern Wayne is eyeing the No. 2 seed. If the Warriors win the tournament, they'll switch spots with the Saints in the state playoffs.

But the team's bullpen took a hit Monday when right-hander Logan Wicks re-aggravated a back injury against D.H. Conley in the Pitt County Spring Invitational. Wicks will miss the ECC tournament, but is expected to return for the postseason.

"It's a slightly-pulled muscle and we're not taking any chances," said Eastern Wayne head coach Jabo Fulghum. "We want the second seed and a home playoff game. We're going after it and that's the way we've always done it.

"We're going to take one game at a time."

The Warriors must minimize their errors. When they've played near-flawless defense, they've usually scratched out a win or come close.

Eastern Wayne is 5-5 in games decided by three runs or less this season.

"I'm excited about our team," said Fulghum. "I think we are playing some our best baseball of the year. Our kids are coming together a little bit. There are other teams in the conference playing well ... quality teams, good competition.

"We're looking forward to it."