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Fab frosh

McGee, Williamson, Brickhouse enjoy stellar debut seasons

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Ashton McGee’s college baseball career got off to a quicker start than he would have imagined, but his first season at North Carolina ended sooner than he would have liked.

McGee, who graduated in December from C.B. Aycock High to enroll at UNC in January, emerged as an offensive threat for the Tar Heels. After working his way into the lineup and settling into the No. 3 spot in Carolina’s potent batting order, McGee helped the Tar Heels win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title and earn the overall No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

However, McGee’s hopes for a storybook finish to a storybook season came crashing down as the Tar Heels were upset in their own Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill by unheralded Davidson in the regional round.

“It was a great season,” McGee said. “It didn’t end how we wanted it to end. We lost to a team nobody thought we would lose to, but that’s baseball I guess. Any team can beat another on any given day.”

Technically, the Wildcats defeated the Tar Heels on two days but, despite the disappointment of the early exit, McGee’s freshman season defied the odds and expectations. He was named ACC Freshman of the Year and landed on the Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America Team with two other Wilson Times readership-area products, Navy’s Jacob Williamson from Hunt High and East Carolina’s Spencer Brickhouse from Bunn High. Brickhouse played for Wilson American Legion Post 13 the last two summers.

But unlike Williamson and Brickhouse, who crossed the graduation stage at their respective high schools last June, McGee missed out on his graduation as well as senior prom and his senior season for the Golden Falcons. He doesn’t regret his decision to switch one light blue uniform for another a year ahead of schedule.

McGee said it took “two to three weeks” to get used to college life. He credited UNC head coach Mike Fox and his upperclassman teammates for helping him adjust, but especially fellow Aycock graduate and UNC senior Adam Pate.

“He was probably one of the biggest helps,” McGee said. “Whenever I needed something, especially at the beginning of the season, when I didn’t know what was going to happen, playing-wise, he would encourage me.”

McGee didn’t take long to find his niche in Chapel Hill. He didn’t play at all in UNC’s season-opening, three-game sweep of Kentucky but entered the Tar Heels’ midweek game against Gardner-Webb as a pinch hitter. In his second at-bat, McGee rapped a double for his first college hit.

Two games later, Fox started the 6-foot-2, 215-pound McGee, who can play any infield position, at designated hitter and he responded with a 3-for-4 day at the plate as UNC won its sixth straight to start the season. From there, McGee was part of the lineup, starting in 57 games. He ranked in the top five for UNC in most offensive categories, hitting .327 with 10 doubles, seven home runs and 46 RBIs with a .484 slugging percentage. Remarkably, his production really never faltered until perhaps the regional, when the Tar Heels collectively fell flat.

“I felt like if anything it was probably at the end in the regional and that was probably from pressing and doing things I didn’t normally do and swinging at bad pitches,” he said.

McGee’s unusual composure as a high school player thrown in the fire of top-level Division I competition was forged the previous spring. He batted .372 as a sophomore third baseman for an Aycock team that lost in the 2015 North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A championship series.

However, the following spring, McGee struggled at the plate for one of the few times in his life, hitting just .221.

“It was just a mental thing really,” he said. “Being a high-caliber player, I’d never been through a struggle like that and I put more pressure on myself trying to win games by myself.

“I feel like that it hurt me but it also made me grow and I learned from it.”

As his former high school coach at CBA, Charles Davis, pointed out, McGee’s “work ethic is unreal.” Fueled by that disappointing spring a year ago, McGee worked hard to make sure he was ready to play Div. I baseball.

“I think a big thing was just looking up to the older guys and seeing how they would handle certain situations and not getting down from one at-bat to another,” he said.

And stay confident.

“If you’re not confident in the box, you’re already defeated and that’s one thing Coach (Fox) has talked to me about,” McGee said.

On being named the ACC’s top freshman, McGee said: “There’s so many good freshman in the ACC and to be considered the best one is an honor but you have to keep working to get better because if not, people are going to pass you.”

That means going to Massachusetts this summer to play for the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod League, the oldest and most prestigious summer collegiate league.

“I’ve talked to a bunch of people who have been to the Cape and they say it’s one of the best times of your life,” said McGee.

Brickhouse will join McGee in the Cape Cod League but with the Bourne Braves.

BRICKHOUSE ADJUSTS QUICKLY

For Brickhouse, the step up to Div. I proved to be a short one. The 6-foot-4, 226-pound slugger, who played for many years with the Wilson Pelicans youth travel team, started 51 of East Carolina’s 57 games while batting .310 with 10 homers (tying for the team lead) and 28 RBIs. He collected 16 multi-hit games and seven multi-RBI outings.

He discovered the biggest difference at that level was more mental than physical.

“It was a lot better pitching and a lot smarter pitchers. When they toe the rubber, they know how to pitch to each hitter,” he said. “It becomes a mental game at that point.”

He credited Pirates head coach Cliff Godwin and his older teammates for helping him to understand the nuances the college game.

“I tried to use everything he told me throughout the fall and winter,” he said of Godwin, noting that making adjustments was a constant in his approach in the batter’s box.

Brickhouse said that he was overall pleased with his play this spring but he wasn’t as consistent as he would have liked.

“I think some games I met expectations and at other times I had a lot of freshman at-bats,” he said.

Brickhouse got a chance to start right away at first base when senior Bryce Harman was sidelined with an injury at the outset of the season.

While Brickhouse enjoyed a splendid debut campaign, the 2017 season proved to be rough going for a band of Pirates who began the season ranked in the top 10 nationally after coming within 90 feet of reaching the College World Series a year earlier. But injuries to senior ace pitcher Evan Kruczynski and sophomore outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton of Wilson, Brickhouse’s longtime friend and Pelicans teammate, helped derail ECU’s dream of making it to Omaha, Nebraska.

“It was tough,” he said. “Of course, we were missing our best pitcher and one of our best hitters but honestly, we needed to be a little tougher mentally.

“We just let it affect us and we shouldn’t have.”

Brickhouse is playing for the Bourne (Massachusetts) Braves in the Cape Cod League, going 1 for 3 in Wednesday’s season opener. Also playing for the Braves this summer are Brickhouse’s ECU teammates infielder Turner Brown and pitcher Chris Holba.

Brickhouse was appreciative of the Freshman All-America honor but just as excited that three of his former Pelicans teammates — Williamson, N.C. State’s Brad Debo and Matthew Barefoot of Campbell — also landed on the Collegiate Baseball elite freshman team.

“It’s great to see these guys go out there and do well at this level,” Brickhouse said. “They all had phenomenal years offensively and defensively.”

MIDDIE MAINSTAY

Williamson was a mainstay in the Midshipmen lineup virtually all season, starting in all 53 games in which he appeared out of their 54 total. The former Hunt multi-sport star seemed to find playing only baseball to his liking as he batted .296 (56 for 189) with 13 doubles, five homers and 25 RBIs. He also made three mound appearances in relief, losing his only decision and posting a 6.75 ERA over 2 2/3 innings.

Williamson and Navy teammate Zach Biggers are among the 10 Midshipmen to be accorded Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America acclaim.

Williamson played for the Wilson Tobs in their first eight games of the summer collegiate Coastal Plain League season but is headed to Singapore for a training mission. He indicated prior to leaving that he may be able to play a few more games for the Tobs upon his return in six weeks.

paul@wilsontimes.com | 265-7808

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