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Looking ahead: Baseball

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East Carolina's Dwanya Williams-Sutton is tagged out at second during a game against NC State on April 26, 2017. (Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector)

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Ronnie Woodward
rwoodward@reflector.com

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Part of the turning from January to February in eastern North Carolina means a greater focus on baseball, from the youth level to high schools to colleges and beyond.

A big part of that culture happens at Clark-LeClair Stadium annually around this time of year for East Carolina baseball and its strong following. Pitt Community College also has a strong tradition under longtime coach Tommy Eason, and the Bulldogs are looking for another great season after making the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II World Series a year ago. 

A lot of eyes are always on the Pirates, who are looking to bounce back after they had great expectations for the 2016 campaign but ultimately didn’t make the NCAA tournament for the first time during coach Cliff Godwin’s first three seasons. ECU was picked fourth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll for this season, but the team has sights on making it back to the NCAAs.

“I’m sure a lot of people think we won’t be very good this year, but this is the most excited I’ve been about a group and the way they go about their business each day,” Godwin said in mid-January.

Here are some things to watch with the Pirates this spring:

Three veterans

Dwanya Williams-Sutton, outfield: Like the Pirates, Williams-Sutton is looking to piece together a full season after an inauspicious campaign in 2016. Williams-Sutton was a freshman All-American two years ago, but his sophomore season was defined by an early hand injury that sidelined him and he never really seemed to regain full strength after returning to the field. As probably ECU’s most talented player, this is likely the Wilson native’s final collegiate season and he could boost his Major League Baseball draft stock with a consistent and productive season batting at or near the top of the Pirates’ lineup.

Turner Brown, shortstop: Brown is another candidate as a top hitter in the team’s batting order. The junior is one of East Carolina’s most experienced players after starting 58 games as a freshman and 55 as a sophomore. In addition to his on-field prowess and experience in the infield, Brown emerged during fall workouts as a team leader and look for that to continue as this season progresses.

Trey Benton, pitcher: Although his sophomore status might make it stretch to call Benton a “veteran,” the valuable experience he gained last year as a leading freshman and him being on track to be the Friday starting pitcher for the Pirates make him a very key part of this roster. Benton was dominant at times during the fall and is a hard-throwing right-hander with big potential. Benton, Jake Agnos and Chris Holba are slated to be ECU’s weekend starters and that could easily serve as a team strength.

Three newcomers

Connor Litton, infield: One noticeable thing at the end of fall practice was that ECU’s top two third basemen (Litton and Collin Watt) were limited by injuries. Both players are healthy again and Litton could have the inside track to start at third base as he came to the Pirates as one of the top junior college hitters in the country out of Cowley County (Kan.) Community College. Watt is a freshman from Asheville.

Gavin Williams, pitcher: Williams was the top signee from East Carolina’s last recruiting class as a 6-foot-6 right-hander from Fayetteville who throws hard and has big-time potential. His role could remain fluid early in the season, but he will likely begin in the bullpen and could take over the closer’s role at some point.

Alec Burleson, first base: Burleson was one of the surprises of the fall as a freshman with natural ability at first base. He can also pitch, giving ECU a strong two-way candidate looking to make an impact. Burleson and sophomore standout Spencer Brickhouse could end up splitting time at first base.

Key games

UNC series: A big benchmark will come during the second weekend of the season, when East Carolina and North Carolina play in a unique weekend setup. The teams will play Feb. 23 in Greenville, the next day at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Sunday finale in Chapel Hill. The Pirates rarely compete against UNC or N.C. State during the weekend, so these will serve as games worth checking out. The Tar Heels are a top-10 ranked team in the preseason.

Houston at home: The LeClair Classic features another strong field (Pepperdine, Missouri State, St. Joseph’s) in early March in Greenville and the Pirates host Maryland later in March, but Houston is the returning American Athletic Conference champion and it is the preseason favorite again to win the league. Houston plays at ECU on April 27-29.

N.C. State: It is always a big deal when East Carolina plays against rival N.C. State in any sport. This year in baseball it is scheduled to happen only once — April 24 in Raleigh.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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