College baseball: Austin building momentum at UNC-Wilmington

GRANITE QUARRY — Baseball players are creatures of habit, and UNC Wilmington rising junior Andy Austin is no different.

He takes swings every day. He lifts weights every other day. He did break his routine on Father's Day Sunday to put in a phone call to Steve Austin.

“Just to say thanks to the man,” Austin said. “Where I am now and who I am now I owe to my dad. When I was a kid, he never let me leave the house without a belt on and my shirt-tail tucked in, and I still try to carry myself like that. As far as baseball, he always had time if I wanted someone to hit me popups. We had a hill in the yard, and he'd let me dive all over the place.”

Those early lessons, along with the ones he learned from East Rowan coach Brian Hightower and Rowan County American Legion Jim Gantt have Austin, who is now 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, playing Division I baseball.

Austin started at first base two years for Rowan County Legion and was a standout three seasons for East as a lefty-swinging, smooth-fielding first baseman. He started as a sophomore for the 2010 Mustangs, who won the 3A state championship. Austin finished his prep career with lofty numbers — 72 runs scored, 70 RBIs, 93 hits, 26 stolen bases and a .362 batting average.

When Austin signed with UNC Wilmington, he knew the Seahawks were recruiting some of the state's best players, and there were no guarantees for playing time. Austin doesn't mind competing, although there have been challenging stretches where he hasn't played a lot.

“Freshman year, I was in center field early in the year,” Austin said. “I think I'm best at first base, but that was fine. The outfield was my best chance to play.”

He started out OK, but then his bat turned as cold as the weather. There was an 0-for-17 stretch between March 5 and May 9, although it wasn't as ugly as it sounds. Mostly those were 0-for-1s when he was called on to pinch-hit against a right-handed reliever.

“I was being used as a matchup guy late in games,” Austin said. “It's not easy to pinch hit in March. It's not like the major leagues where you can go down in a tunnel, take swings and stay warm.”

Still, Austin finished that freshman year on a high note. He got opportunities to start in May and produced four two-hit games down the stretch for a 38-23 team that earned a bid to the NCAA Regional in Charlottesville.

Austin delivered a 2-for-3 game with two RBIs in the regional against Elon. That sent him into the offseason full of optimism.

His sophomore season was almost an instant replay for Austin, Playing time early. Slump in the middle. Big finish.

“It was kind of the same ordeal,” Austin said. “I was starting the first few games, but then I got into a funk.”

An 0-for-8 start put Austin back in the role of pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. Between March 2 and April 26, he only had one hit.

His limited role ended in late April when UNCW slugger Corey Dick tore an ACL running to first base. That misfortune put Austin back in the lineup, at least against right-handed pitchers.

He made the most of his chance, especially in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. He went 7-for-14 in that tournament. He had three RBIs against James Madison and went 3-for-4 against Delaware.

“I was able to come through a few times in clutch situations,” Austin said. “It's all about competing when you get the chance. That's why you put in all the work every summer and fall — so you can come through for your teammates in those tough situations.”

The Seahawks (30-27) ended their season with their second loss in the conference tournament. There was no regional bid despite a roster that included four pitchers who were chosen in the MLB draft.

“We just didn't have he season we wanted to have,” Austin said.

While he's batted .236 and .255 in two college seasons and has played sporadically, Austin wouldn't change anything if he had it to do over again.

“I really do enjoy school,” said Austin, who has an interesting major — Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management. “And I love the camaraderie of being part of this baseball team.”

Austin isn't currently playing this summer, although he's on the list for several Coastal Plain League teams if a roster spot opens up. While he waits for the phone to ring, he puts in his swings.

On Monday, he took those swings against Hightower in the East Rowan cages at Staton Field, where he hit a lot of line drives and made a lot of people cheer.

He dutifully goes about his baseball business each day, hopeful that more cheers are in his future as a Seahawk.

“I know I was a much better player as a sophomore than I was as a freshman,” Austin said. “I've got a lot of experience now, and I know they'll be counting on me as a junior. I'll be ready to compete.”

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