Senior Class Reflects On Time And Friendships At East Carolina
May 5, 2012
By Sam Hickman
East Carolina's baseball team and its fans have set a high standard. Participants in 11 of the last 13 NCAA Regionals, the Pirates have established themselves as one of the nation's top programs. Such an accomplishment can be attributed to many different factors, and the 2012 senior class played just as big of a role as anyone in this development.
On Saturday afternoon, Kevin Brandt, Lance Honeycutt, Corey Thompson, Mike Ussery, Zach Wright and Tim Younger will be honored prior to the first pitch during the Senior Day ceremony. Although Younger and Ussery transferred to East Carolina after highly successful stints as junior college players, the senior class is responsible - to date - for 131 victories, 15 triumphs over teams ranked amongst the nation's top 25 clubs, trips to a pair of NCAA Regionals, the 2009 Conference USA Regular Season Championship, the 2009 Greenville Regional title and the 2009 LeClair Classic Championship.
There are very few collegiate baseball programs honoring their graduating senior class at the end of the 2012 season that can hang their hat on that sort of list. Yet when asked what they would miss most about their time on the diamond in Greenville, there was a consensus.
"The fans," senior catcher Zach Wright said. "I'll never forget my freshman year against (North) Carolina and then beating South Carolina in the Regional. There were so many people here, it's hard to describe playing in front of that many people."
Wright did indeed perform in front of record crowds at Lewis Field inside Clark-LeClair Stadium, and he performed admirable. Wright has started in a remarkable 156 games for the Purple and Gold and has been named to the Johnny Bench Award Watch List three times - the award is given annually to the nation's top collegiate catcher. He is currently tied on the all-time home runs chart with Brandon Henderson with 34 round-trippers. During his sophomore season in 2010, Wright smacked a Pirate program record three grand slams. The Goldsboro, N.C., native has also made his mark as one of East Carolina's leading ambassadors away from the diamond as he has been a regular on the ECU Director of Athletics Honor Roll.
Wright has called pitches for several hurlers during his time at ECU, and perhaps none have had a more dramatic experience than senior lefty Kevin Brandt. A seldom-used freshman from Fuquay Varina in 2009, Brandt was called upon by Billy Godwin against then No. 11 Oklahoma State and eventually led the Pirates to a win over the Cowboys, marking Brandt's first win as a Pirate. The lanky lefty went on to defeat No. 1 North Carolina with a 10- strikeout performance against the Tar Heels in front of a record crowd inside the friendly confines of Clark-LeClair. He currently owns 25 wins in a Pirate uniform and in 2012, a 6-4 record and outstanding 2.06 ERA.
Like Wright, Brandt seemingly will miss taking the field for home games more than anything.
"I remember being a freshman and having a terrible fall," he recalled. "Coach Godwin called for me against Oklahoma State and I thought it was some kind of joke. I went in there and pitched well and it's been good since then for the most part. I'm really going to miss pitching here...in games like the North Carolina game my freshman year. I don't even think anyone really knows how many people were here that night."
Senior right-hander Lance Honeycutt recalled that night as well, saying it was one of the wildest baseball games he has witnessed at any level. A fixture on the pitching staff over the last four years, Honeycutt has established himself as a very popular teammate. He has appeared in 15 games throughout his career, all coming in relief. He pitched in six games during his freshman campaign, totaling 4 1/3 frames where he allowed two runs and struck out three batters. Thus far in 2012, Honeycutt has now allowed a run in three appearances. He has also performed admirably in the classroom for the Pirates as he has been selected to the Director of Athletics Honor Roll on a pair of occasions.
However, Honeycutt said he won't remember his career based on any particular game or outing on the mound, but the camaraderie he shared with his coaches and teammates.
"I'll just miss being with the guys," Honeycutt said, pointing to his Pirate teammates in the midst of celebrating yet another victory. "I remember during a long rain delay, we were in the club house playing, taking the tops off the stools and throwing them around at each other like a game of `Call of Duty.' It's things like that I'll miss the most. Just being one of the guys."
Certainly, middle infielder Mike Ussery - a native of California - will miss being one of the guys, as well. Ussery, who came to East Carolina from the same junior college in The Golden State as hitting coach Nick Schnabel, made an immediate impact on the Pirate baseball landscape during his junior year of 2011. He has now played in 61 career games and has compiled 38 starts. Last year, he started in 37 of 50 games at second base, where he batted .264 with 18 RBI. He also showed off his flare for the dramatic with game-winning hits against Pepperdine and Delaware State. Ussery stepped right into Conference USA play after two years of junior college ball and served as one of ECU's best hitters during league play, carding a composite .342 batting clip during conference action.
While Ussery burst onto the scene during the 2011 season and made an immediate impact, Corey Thompson has continued his legacy as a Diamond Pirate over the last four years. Thompson, a native of Apex, N.C., and a fixture at third base for the last three years, has said in countless interviews that his favorite moment will forever be beating Carolina during his freshman season. Thompson always pauses to laugh when explaining this moment because he didn't "see the field," as he recollects.
"I didn't even play during the game," Thompson said. "But nobody can understand what it was like being a part of a game like that. There were people everywhere...rows deep in the outfield. I think that's what I'll miss most, taking the field in front of huge crowds like that on a nightly basis. There aren't 4,000 people here every night, but how many college baseball players can say they get to take the field in front of at least 2,000 people on a nightly basis? Not many, that's an awesome experience."
The 2,500 - and that's on the low end, the Pirates have ranked in the nation's top 22 programs in attendance in every year since the 2006 season - the faithful that have filed in the stadium to see the Pirates have been pleased with what they've witnessed from Thompson. He currently owns the 10th highest career batting average in East Carolina history and ranks amongst the all-time leaders in runs, hits, doubles, RBI, walks and multi-hit games. After being named to the 2012 C-USA Preseason All-Conference squad, Thompson has started 44 games and carries a .303 average with eight doubles and four home runs into the season's stretch run.
Thompson's 2012 accomplishments have surprised very few considering his past success, yet the success of another fellow infielder has often times stolen headlines this season. Tim Younger, a native of Clearwater, Fla., and the ninth recipient of the honorary No. 23 jersey, claimed the starting position at second base and never looked back. He has earned Conference USA Hitter-of-the-Week honors and ranks third on the team with a .327 batting average. He has recorded seven doubles and the diminutive Younger has also collected 21 RBI, more than doubling his 2011 output.
Of course, Younger's numbers and remarkable consistency at second base pale in comparison to the honor that was bestowed upon him at the 2012 Meet the Pirates gathering. Younger was chosen to don the No. 23 jersey, given annually to a Pirate who embodies the personal characteristic of former Pirate skipper Keith LeClair. "It's such an honor," Younger said. "I can't tell you what it's like being chosen for this jersey and putting it on everyday we play. Going to a Regional last year and playing in a lot of big games is great and all, but nothing will top putting on the '23.'"
Undoubtedly, all six seniors will miss putting on the East Carolina uniform upon the conclusion of the 2012 season. Each and every one of them expressed a debt of gratitude to Pirate Nation for its unrelenting support of the baseball program over the last four years.
You'll certainly be missed.