06/03/11 — Different factors motivate Pirates, Tar Heels, Wolfpack as postseason begins

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Different factors motivate Pirates, Tar Heels, Wolfpack as postseason begins

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on June 3, 2011 1:47 PM

Redemption and character. One last shot. A chance to rekindle a program tradition.

All those incentives are driving forces for five former Wayne County alumni when the NCAA Division I baseball tournament gets underway today at 16 regionals throughout the country.

East Carolina (39-19 overall) is the No. 2 seed in the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional and opposes St. John's. North Carolina is the No. 1 seed in the Chapel Hill Regional and plays host to fourth-seeded Maine. Meanwhile, N.C. State travels to defending national champion South Carolina, and opens against second-seeded Stetson in the Columbia Regional.

The four-team, double-elimination tournaments continue through Monday with the winners advancing to super regional play.

The Pirates struggled to overcome an academic scandal that rocked the ECU program last year, and failed to earn a postseason bid. The past has been forgotten, but it was also a character-building lesson for the current baseball team.

"We tried to put all that behind us," said Pirates first baseman John Wooten, an Eastern Wayne grad. "I think it shows a lot of character for this program to get back to the regional after what happened last year. It says a lot about the guys who playing hard for this program, and this great university."

Wooten is just one of three players along with Zach Wright and Trent Whitehead to start all 58 games for the Pirates this season. He's batting .284 with 27 RBI, and leads the team defensively with 466 putouts.

Wright is the team leader in home runs (13), second in RBI (39) and is one of seven Pirates to record 50 or more hits this season. The Charles B. Aycock alum is one of 42 players nationwide named to the prestigious Johnny Bench Watch List, which recognizes the country's top Division I catcher.

"There weren't too many people who gave me credit (in high school) or were expecting me to do big things at East Carolina," said Wright. "When I got here and got my chance, I tried to make the most of it and it's been working out so far. It's been a long season ... not used to catching so many games.

"I'm just trying to stay healthy and take things as they go. I can't let the little things affect me behind the plate."

Wolfpack southpaw Grant Sasser began this season as a closer, the same role he had toward the end of last spring. The coaching staff asked Sasser to start about a month into the season and then he went back to the bullpen.

The Aycock alum is 1-3 on the hill with a 4.11 earned run average (ERA) in 16 appearances. He's thrown 35 innings for the Wolfpack, which carries a 35-24 worksheet into the regional.

"This season, I've been asked to do a lot of different things," said Sasser, a junior. "It's been fun to mix it up a little bit, and it's been challenging switching roles and mentalities at the same time. It's fun to be playing baseball right now.

"We've been somewhat streaky (this season). It's good because we know we are capable of getting hot. We just have to harness that ability and take it into every single game."

Brandon Price shares Sasser's opinion, but also knows this is his last shot to reach baseball's mecca -- Omaha. The senior right-hander hasn't logged a victory this season, and has fashioned a solid 1.93 ERA in 91/3 innings of action.

"We've stayed focused on our goals, and we're making sure that everyone is working hard to get the job done," said Price. "You have to play every game like it's your last, but you don't understand that until you're at the end and then you truly get what that means."

The Tar Heels (45-14) made four consecutive appearances in Omaha from 2006-09, and were national runners-up to Oregon State in 2006 and 2007.

UNC is anxious to play for another College World Series crown.

"Obviously, Omaha is everybody's goal at the beginning of the season," said Aycock alum Garrett Davis, a redshirt junior. "The attitude of this team is we have a bunch of guys who like to win. We're going to compete and do everything we can to make sure that happens. As long as we play our game and play the way we're capable of playing, we'll get through this regional."

The quintet agreed that timely hitting, defense and consistent pitching would be the keys to advancing past the regional. Each team has its own strength and quality players who are ranked nationally in different statistical categories.

"I think we need to take it one game at a time," said Wright. "(ECU) Coach (Billy Godwin) stresses us to look at the game we've been handed. St. John's is a good opponent and I think we're ready for them. Then we'll prepare for the winner in the next game.

"You can't take anything for granted."