For the first time in two years, fans will be able to enjoy a full season of baseball in Wayne County thanks to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions being lifted.

Even though last season was shortened, it was a memorable one in Wayne County with Wayne Country Day winning the private school state championship and several other schools making deep playoff runs.

This season started March 1 and brings with it a lot of unanswered questions. Will Wayne Country Day be able to defend their state title? Will the new coaching hires for Rosewood and Goldsboro result in more or less wins for their respective teams? And how will the conference realignment affect each team?

WAYNE COUNTRY DAYWhen Wayne Country Day won the state title last season it was their first since 2007, and the long title drought meant that not many people expected them to win.

This year, Wayne Country Day is no longer an underdog and is one of the favorites to challenge for a state championship.

Wayne Country Day head coach Adam Pate said he is trying to get his players to ignore the expectations placed on them and get them to focus just one game at a time.

“There’s a lot of expectations that come after winning a state championship,” Pate said. “The thing I am proud of my guys for now is that they have put in a lot of work in the off-season. They show up ready to put in more work and if that will continue and not run out by April and May, we should be in contention to hopefully to do it again.”

Last year, the Chargers went on an incredible 20-1 run during their battle for the state championship. Even though they lost some of their key starters, such as pitching ace Garrett Moffett, infielder Tanner Willman and infielder Rowan Watt, they were able to keep the majority of their championship roster intact for the 2022 season.

Some of the key players returning from last year’s championship run are junior starting pitcher Braeden Collins, freshman starting infielder Everette Johnson, and starting outfielder Gavin Johnson.

Last year, Collins was second in the rotation behind Garrett Moffett who graduated in 2021. With Moffett off playing for the N.C. State Wolfpacks, the junior will have to step and take on the role as the number one starter in the rotation.

Collins has shown he has the ability to be a number one starting pitcher as last season he posted a 1.78 earned run average and won all five of his starts on the mound. Those numbers would make him a starter for almost every other school in the county but it wasn’t good enough to start over Moffett who posted an eye watering 0.67 earned run average.

As just an eighth grader, Everette Johnson proved he could be someone the Chargers leaned on when they needed a big hit.

Last season, Johnson posted an incredible 0.608 batting average and never struck out once all season at the plate. The infielder also led the team in runs scored with 34 and added 21 runs batted in. Pate hopes Johnson can continue to play at the same level this year and his next three years.

Gavin Johnson who was a key part of the Wayne Country offense on the championship team is returning for his junior season.

In his sophomore season, Gavin finished third on the team in batting average at 0.468, just behind Johnson at 0.608 and Garrett Moffett at 0.517. He also finished third on team in RBI’s with 25 and third on team in home runs with six, trailing to Garrett Moffett and Rowan Watt in both categories.

With Mason Moffett and Rowan gone, Gavin Johnson will be expected to fill in their role as the team’s power hitter, and unless someone else can step up this season, he may be their only power-hitting option.

ROSEWOODPlayers from last year’s Rosewood baseball team held an incredible 11-3 regular season record but ended up losing in the first round of the state playoffs.

This year, the Rosewood Eagles will be without their four leaders in batting average from last season in Davis Albert with a 0.468 batting average, Will Harris who also had a 0.468 average, Logan Merritt with a 0.463 average and Connor Casey with a 0.458 average.

Harris, Merritt, and Casey all graduated while Albert joined last year’s private school state champions Wayne Country Day.

Even though it will be hard to replace the players, new head coach Justin Willoughby said he is excited about the young players he has on his team.

“We have a young team, and we’ve got a lot of kids who love the game,” Willoughby said. “There are going to be sometimes were our youth will show. I just expect us to do the best we can, and play the game the way it’s meant to be played.”

Willoughby joins the Eagles from Princeton High School where he coached more than 20 years. He is also joined on the coaching staff this season by former Goldsboro head coach Danny Merritt who also offers more than 20 years of coaching experience at the high school level.

The only two returning starters this season for the Eagles are infielder Anderson Clucas and outfielder Cam Medlin.

Last season both guys were defensive specialists for their team. Clucas held almost every position in the infield and held a 1.50 earned run average with two wins and zero losses as a pitcher for the Eagles. He struggled on the offensive side of the ball, batting just 0.147. It was a similar story for Medlin, who started every game in the outfield, making some incredible plays and struggling at the plate. Medlin held a 0.116 batting average last season.

CHARLES B. AYCOCKThe Charles B. Aycock Golden Falcons baseball team improved a lot last season from where it was two seasons before. The Golden Falcons finished 8-5 overall and 7-5 in conference play, which was only good for fourth place in the conference but still much better than in 2019 at 5-8 overall and 2-10 in conference play.

In 2020, the season was canceled after just four games due to the COVID-19 pandemic with just one conference game played by the Golden Falcons.

A big part of the of the team’s improvement in 2021 was the offensive production of Cameron Aycock who was only a freshman last season. He led all players, with three or more at-bats, in batting average at 0.474. Aycock also led the team in hits, runs batted in and was second on the team in runs scored.

Their offensive production last season was also aided by junior’s Carson Gipson, Brandon Godwin, and D.J. Madrigal who will all be returning for their senior seasons.

C.B. Aycock head coach Allen Thomas said he is excited about the return of so many juniors who are now seniors and expects them to be leaders on the team.

“We’ve got a group of seniors that have been around for a while, and we are excited about the returners we have,” Thomas said. “They have worked hard and they know what is expected.”

FAITH CHRISTIANLast season was a year of mixed results for Faith Christian. While the Conquerors had an improved 9-5 overall record, they held just an average 5-4 record in conference play.

Conquerors head coach Steven Reese didn’t let last year’s shortcomings worry him, and he said he believes this year’s team can win the conference and even challenge for a state championship.

“Our goal is to win first place in our conference, and we are going to try to win the state championship,” Reese said. “That is a realistic goal of ours.”

Reese also identified some key players who are going to have to step up to make those goals a reality.

“Our senior catcher Brett Bumgartner, our juniors Hunter Pitmann and Alex Tillman, and we have two, Ben Reese and Chase Moen who are going to be big for us,” he said. “Even some eighth graders are going to be big for us.”

GOLDSBOROLast year in a shortened season, Goldsboro got off to great start winning three of their first four games, but the season came crashing to an end after they only won two of their final eight games.

This season, Goldsboro will be looking for a fresh start with six new freshmen players, as well as a new head coach in Chris Davis after the retirement of former head coach Danny Merritt.

“My goal is no matter what that we get better and progress throughout the season and, hopefully, that will accumulate into wins,” Davis said. “I just know that we are working and as far as the results, I will let that take care of itself.”

Davis also identified four players he believes will be the key to their success this season.

“Braxton (Morton) who is starting on the mound this year, Cole (McFatter), Savion (Edwards), (Ennis) Drake who is injured (are the key players),” Davis said.

Last year, Cole McFatter led the team in batting average at 0.421, and was tied for the most hits with eight. This year with a full season for the Cougars, Davis will be hoping McFatter can improve his stats and maintain a high batting average.

Davis said that even though he has players he can rely on, this year will be a building year for the future as the team is made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores.

“They are mostly freshmen so I am looking to work with them in the offseason,” Davis said. “I am just trying to build for the future. That’s basically how I am looking (at it).

“I have those few players that I think can contribute and be my leaders, and I am hoping everyone else can follow along with that.”

SPRING CREEKWhile the 2020 season being cut short due the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the lack of development for many teams, it may have had the opposite affect for the Gators. After going 0-4 before the season was cancelled in 2020 Spring Creek was able to regroup and win their first game in 2021.

Although the season didn’t go the way they would have hoped, 4-7 is a sizable improvement over 0-4.

This season, the Gators will also have the added motivation of trying to send head coach Heath Whitfield off with a bang in what is most likely his final season in charge after he tried to retire last season but the school was unable to find a replacement.

Whitfield identified three players he believes will be the team leaders this season.

“We have some really good senior leadership,” Whitfield said. “Cole Honeycutt, he will be catching and pitching, Robert Strickland he will be playing anywhere, and David Williams will be playing shortstop and pitching. Those three guys right there are the team leaders.”

The Gators will have to hope those leaders step up and help fill the gap of senior Andrew Crumpler who now plays for the Eastern Wayne Warriors. Crumpler led the team in batting average and runs scored last season.

SOUTHERN WAYNEThe last couple of seasons have been trying times for the Saints that finished 5-18 in 2019, 3-2 in 2020, and 4-10 in 2021. There is hope, however, as the majority of the losses came in conference play. This year, the team is entering a new conference.

The new Quad County 3A conference will only feature 3A schools instead of the 4A schools, like New Bern and South Central.

Southern Wayne head coach Trae McKee said that as a team, they are still trying find their identity and adjust to the new conference.

“Coming out of that Eastern 3A/4A Conference we are going into a different conference so a lot is up in the air,” McKee said. “We are just trying to find our identity. I think we are going to pitch it pretty well. It’s a matter of whether we can move runners, draw some walks, and get some base hits.”

One of the most important players for Southern Wayne this season will be senior starting pitcher Will Pennington who is first in the Saints pitching rotation. Last season, Pennington showed that he had the velocity needed to pitch at a high level and he led the team in strikeouts with 38. He also struggled with giving up runs though, giving up an average of 6.13 per nine innings.

Pennington had a much better earned run average when pitching for the Wayne County Post 11 legion baseball team during the summer of 2021, and he will be hoping to carry over that improvement in runs allowed this season.

EASTERN WAYNEThe season is underway for the Warriors that began with its first game March 2. Eastern Wayne will be hoping for a dramatic improvement this year after finishing 0-14 last season.

Warriors head coach William Fields said he believes the Warriors will improve in all phases of the game this year, thanks to a strong senior class.

“I think it’s going to really help out this year that we have a lot of season leadership,” Fields said. “Last season we didn’t have any seniors on the baseball team.

“We were starting freshmen behind the plate. We had freshmen in right field, and we were just young. Now we have seven or eight seniors, which is going to make a big difference.”

On offense, the Warriors should see some improvement thanks to the addition of Andrew Crumpler who played for the Gators last season. During the 2021 season, Crumpler led Spring Creek in runs scored, something the Warriors desperately needed last season not scoring over three runs in a single game the entire season.

Fields said he will be looking to Trevor Warren and Daniel Weeks to lead the team on offense and defense.

“It really is going to make a difference if we can get Daniel Weeks healthy again,” Fields said. “Daniel broke his leg in two places last year and had to have a steel plate with 10 screws put in. He’s not 100% just yet but he is able to hit now. He’s just not been released to throw yet.

“Trevor Warren is (also) going to be very important. They are going to be big not just at the mound but at the plate.”

Fields said he is also encouraged by Eastern Wayne’s move out of the Eastern 3A/4A conference and into the Neuse Six 2A Conference.

“Overall, I really think that dropping down from the 3A/4A conference with D.H. Rose, Conley, South Central, and New Bern is really going to make a difference,” Fields said. “Going to 2A we’re more evenly matched with size of school.”

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