Prep Baseball: East Rowan's Austin commits to UNCW
By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — The UNC Wilmington baseball record book is speckled with players from Rowan County.
North Rowan outfielder Justin Wishon still holds the school record for on-base percentage in a season (.530 in 2000).
South Rowan pitcher Andrew Morgan did good work for the Seahawks not long ago. North pitcher Brian Whitaker used UNC Wilmington as a springboard that took him to Triple A, and South hurler Brian Smith became one of the handful of Seahawks to make the majors when he drank a cup of coffee (five relief appearances) with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2000 to highlight his 10-year pro career.
UNC Wilmington is back on the radar for Rowan baseball fans. Former East outfielder Micah Jarrett signed with the Seahawks recently, and now East’s rising senior first baseman Andy Austin has given UNC Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf a verbal commitment.
“Wilmington’s a beautiful place with great scenery and a great baseball program,” Austin explained. “I’m really going to have to work to play there, but I want to play with good people. I wanted to go to a place where there’s a chance to go to Omaha.”
Gardner-Webb also had offered Austin, while Charlotte and UNC Asheville were pursuing him. The one place Austin may have chosen over UNC Wilmington was North Carolina, but the Tar Heels, who have their pick of most of the world, had shown only mild interest.
“When the UNC Wilmington coaches drove to one of my Legion games this summer, it showed me how much they really wanted me,” Austin said.
UNC Wilmington currently has a fine first baseman in rising junior Hunter Ridge, the former Randolph County Legion star, but Ridge is a potential draft pick after the 2012 season.
While it seems early in the recruiting process, it’s not early as far as Division I schools. They have 111/4 full scholarships to divide up, and much of that money is earmarked for pitchers.
“Usually it’s pitchers, then catchers, then the up-the-middle guys,” Austin said. “I’ve played in some showcase games since Legion ball and some of my teammates were already starting to sweat,” Austin said. “The scholarship money runs out quick.
East coach Brian Hightower has watched his recent standouts head to Charlotte or Appalachian State, but he’s pleased with Austin’s decision.
“Wilmington? Heck, who wouldn’t want to play there,” he said. “Great program.”
Hightower is looking forward to seeing Austin’s development during the course of his senior year.
“Andy’s a good student and a really mature kid,” he said. “Every coach mentions how mature he is, that he doesn’t get nervous at all when he’s talking to them.”
A State Games performer the last two summers, Austin attracted attention from Division I schools because he’s a good athlete who projects as a left-handed power hitter.
At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, he’s an unusual first baseman in that he moves around the bag like a shortstop. He has a powerful throwing arm for first base (he throws right-handed) and his running speed (he usually runs 7.0 in the 60) is well above average for a first baseman.
Austin is likely quick enough and throws well enough to be a serviceable college outfielder, but it’s at first base that he’d be a plus for any defense.
“I think the college coaches like Andy’s size because he’s got a frame that’s perfect to build on,” Hightower said. “He’s a smooth athlete with great defensive instincts and he’s got enough speed. There’s really nothing there not to like.”
Austin has been a terrific high school player, driving in 52 runs the past two seasons. He batted .374 as a sophomore No. 5 hitter on a 3A state championship team. As East’s cleanup man as a junior, he batted .410 for a squad that won the NPC title.
Already a two-year regular for the Rowan County American Legion team, Austin has hit .310 for his career, with 51 runs scored and 38 RBIs.
In 411 official at-bats between high school and Legion, Austin, who hits the ball very well to the opposite field, has produced 102 singles, 28 doubles, four triples and a modest seven homers.
Austin understands he’ll be asked to hit more balls over the fence at the college level, even with the new BBCOR certified bats that have reduced offense dramatically. The expectation is that as he adds weight and muscle to his tall frame, some of those singles will become doubles and some of those doubles will become homers.
“I want to get faster, but the biggest thing for me to work on this offseason is to get stronger,” Austin said. “As a college corner infielder, I’ve got to have some power. I’ve got to drive the ball more.”
It’s possible Jarrett will be drafted after next season, but there’s also a chance that Austin, who watched Jarrett play as a youngster, will get to be his Seahawk teammate in 2013.
“Micah’s one of the guys I looked up to,” Austin said. “He can fly, and he’s got a cannon. He’s one of the first five-tool players I ever saw.”