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If ECU wants to get back to its winning ways on the baseball diamond this season, it will need two of its players with heavy ties to the Wilson area to step up and deliver.
Former Wilson Hunt and Greenfield star Dwanya Williams-Sutton, and one-time Wilson American Legion Post 13 player Spencer Brickhouse are each expected to be a vital part of this year’s Pirates team, especially when it comes to their presence at the plate.
Both players certainly had their fair share of bright moments last season. Williams-Sutton, when healthy, was a key player in ECU’s lineup, but a thumb injury limited his effectiveness for nearly the entire season, dropping his batting average under .300. Brickhouse, meanwhile, earned Freshman All-American honors with a .310 batting average and 10 home runs, but he also led the team in strikeouts and went through a few extended slumps as a first-year player.
Although it was far from the faults of Brickhouse and Williams-Sutton, the Pirates suffered through an unexpectedly tough season overall. Despite a preseason Top 10 national ranking by Baseball America, ECU finished the season 32-28, missed a regional and ended up in last place in the American Athletic Conference regular-season standings. Fourth-year head coach Cliff Godwin has often said this offseason that last year’s results were the best thing that could have happened to the program. It’s forced not only the coaching staff to re-evaluate things, but even players like Williams-Sutton, who were already blessed with supreme talent, to look into the mirror and discover what can help potentially take their games to the next level.
“Dwanya’s just been awesome, and it’s not necessarily been the production,” Godwin said of the junior outfielder at ECU’s media day on Monday. “It’s been the smile on his face. He’s showing up every day with the intent to help us get better. Dwanya is such an infectious person, has such a great personality when he brings everything to the table, and he’s done that. He’s made our team better just by showing up every day.
“He’s looked great. I’m just proud of the way he’s gone about his business.”
Blessed with elite physical tools, Williams-Sutton was recently named by Baseball America as the fifth-best draft prospect in a talented American Athletic Conference heading into 2018. If he stays healthy and focused, there’s no reason Williams-Sutton shouldn’t be looking at a potential payday near season’s end when the MLB First-Year Player Draft rolls around in June.
But Williams-Sutton — who admits he’s more comfortable between the lines on the diamond rather than speaking to the media — isn’t worried about next year quite yet.
“I’m just trying to be the same old Dwanya,” Williams-Sutton said. “Always just trying to smile, give everybody a show.”
After seeing his batting average last year dip to .286 after a .360 clip as a freshman, Williams-Sutton is thankful for his health this season. A thumb injury he suffered in the fourth game of the year sliding into second base at Campbell lingered all season and limited his ability to swing the bat with full strength.
Following offseason surgery and rehab, Williams-Sutton said he’s 100 percent and ready to go. Godwin also said Williams-Sutton won’t hit in the leadoff spot like last season, indicating the junior outfielder will likely bat somewhere in the middle of the order instead.
“I learned I’m a tough person, dealing with everything last year,” said Williams-Sutton, who will wear protective pad on his hand while running the bases this season. “Having those injuries kind of brought me down. It made me ask myself, ‘Should I be playing baseball? Should I stop?’ But in the end it made me a better person to be around and a better teammate.”
Perhaps hitting just behind or in front of Williams-Sutton come the Feb. 16 season opener against Western Carolina will be Brickhouse, who used to be teammates with the Pirate outfielder during their American Legion days and before on Earl Taylor’s Wilson Pelicans youth travel team.
Brickhouse, like Williams-Sutton in 2016, earned Freshman All-American honors last season. He started 51 of 60 games, posted the fourth-best batting average on the team and tied with senior Travis Watkins for the team-lead in home runs. But in Brickhouse’s mind, he still has plenty of growing up to do.
“I swung at a lot of balls that were outside the zone last year and that frustrated me,” said Brickhouse, who still managed to take free passes at a solid rate with 24 walks, good for third on the squad. “I took what Coach Godwin said to heart and all the stuff that he’s taught me over the last year and a half to help me out at the plate.”
The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder also hopes to improve the other aspects of his game as well. Brickhouse doesn’t only want to be known for his bat.
“I’ve honestly been more focused on the defensive side of things and the base running,” said Brickhouse, who made just four errors in 299 chances last season but is being pushed by standout freshman Alec Burleson. “I think every 90 feet counts. Two years ago, we were 90 feet away from going to Omaha. I wasn’t even here. I can’t really fathom what that means to this program, but I can take a perspective and realize 90 feet does make a huge difference.
“If I can take one more base this year that could be the difference between us just playing in a Super Regional or going to Omaha. It could mean the difference for everything.”