By Sam Hickman, East Carolina Media Relations
After falling in the NCAA Charlottesville Regional Final to overall top seed Virginia to conclude the 2011 baseball campaign, East Carolina head coach Billy Godwin was faced with rebuilding a depleted pitching staff. The Pirate skipper and his staff had to find a way to cope with losing a stable of arms that produced the nation’s seventh-best team earned run average (2.67) last season. The group saw five of its members ink professional contracts this offseason and witnessed the departure of All-American Seth Maness. Suddenly, arms were at a premium.
Fortunately for East Carolina, there is a pitcher pipeline that runs from the United States Virgin Islands to Greenville.
Godwin received an official commitment from right-handed pitcher and St. Thomas native Jharel Cotton in April. A lifelong friend of Cotton and fellow islander Deshorn Lake validated an oral commitment he made with East Carolina in January, electing to turn down a professional contract he was offered after being selected by the Boston Red Sox in this year’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Cotton and Lake both came from the tiny island of St. Thomas (population circa 51,000) to the eastern plains of North Carolina, but their respective journeys were unique.
Cotton, who grew up playing baseball with and against Lake from “Little League to travel ball,” moved to the continental United States before his final year of high school with a couple of friends – one whom is Lake’s older brother – and resided in Newport News, Va. He enrolled at Menchville High School where he teamed with current Pirate hurler Austin Chrismon. Cotton and Chrismon helped lead Menchville to the Virginia 3A state crown as well as the 2009 National Championship (USA Today).
The affable Cotton, who utilizes a fastball, curveball, and changeup in his repertoire, attended Miami Dade College after graduating high school. He wasted little time making an impact on the collegiate baseball landscape as he tallied a 4-2 ledger with a 2.77 ERA and turned down a free agent contract offered by the Los Angeles Dodgers after his initial season.
Meanwhile, as Cotton excelled in South Beach, his older brother, Jamaine, was drafted in the 15th round by the Houston Astros. Jamaine joined a long list of ballplayers hailing from the Virgin Islands who have recently signed big-league deals. The younger Cotton added it is his dream to join his sibling in the professional ranks.
“Every time I would start to take it easy, my brother would push me,” he said. “He wanted to be great and that made me want to be great. He always told me that no one should out work me. There will always be someone out there who is better, but that doesn’t mean that you should be out worked by anyone.”
Cotton also noted the last couple of years have been telling of the vast improvement the Islands have experienced in the quality of baseball.
“2009 was the big year for the Virgin Islands,” he said. “We had quite a few guys get drafted or sign with big-time college teams. It’s cool to have so many good players from such a small place.”
Cotton followed up an impressive freshman season with a 4-3 mark last year while lowering his ERA to 2.49. After being picked in the 28th round by the New York Mets in 2011, Cotton said the decision to honor his commitment to ECU was rather easy.
“My choice wasn’t a difficult one at all,” Cotton assured. “I knew I wanted to come to East Carolina. I wanted to experience the Division-I life and see how it felt. I love it. I feel like I have the opportunity to improve so much because of the coaches and the time I have to practice.”
Godwin, who has guided the Pirates to three NCAA Regional Final appearances in the last six years, said it was vital to sign a player like Cotton who immediately brings a proven, quality arm to a staff that lacks valuable experience.
“We knew we needed a JUCO pitcher, someone who could step right in and contribute,” Godwin explained as he detailed Cotton’s recruitment process. “I saw him for the first time last summer pitching in the Coastal Plains League. I was impressed by his abilities. To see the numbers he put up [at Miami Dade] in a very tough junior college baseball state and watching how he is throwing now, he’s in a spot to compete for one of the weekend rotation spots.”
As for Lake, the brawny flamethrower – who looks more like a linebacker than a pitcher – spent two years of his prep career at Menchville. Chrismon played with both Lake and Cotton, but the friends from the Islands were not teammates in high school. Though they never were Monarchs together, Lake still calls Cotton his “role model” as he watched his good friend climb up the baseball ranks from a very young age. Listed at 6-1, 220 pounds, Lake collected a combined 15-4 record over his two seasons with a stifling 2.06 ERA. His performance was good enough to earn AFLAC All-America honors, given to the top high school players in the country. Lake was selected to play in the 2011 AFLAC All-Star Game, which was held at PETCO Park, home of the San Diego Padres.
Needless to say, Lake didn’t fly under the radar quite like his good friend and mentor Cotton. Several Major League Baseball scouts had Lake projected as high as a third-round pick and others said it was a “long shot” for him to ever step on a college baseball diamond. Just 17 at the time of the draft, experts attributed his advanced and athletic frame coupled with the potential to possess an overpowering fastball as reasons for such lofty draft projections.
However, Lake was not selected until the 12th round by the Red Sox and said the contract was not enough incentive to pass on the opportunity of earning a college diploma. He later confirmed his commitment to don the Purple and Gold.
“I really liked ECU as a school,” the soft-spoken Lake said. “I always asked Austin questions. I know he had to be annoyed; I was harassing him, always asking him about this place. But I also wanted to stay close to my brothers in Virginia and I wanted to see my mother when she visits us from the Islands. If I get a break from school now, I can go home and see my family. I don’t know. It just worked.”
Reflecting back on their journeys since moving to the states, both pitchers indicated how pleased they were with their decisions that brought them to East Carolina. Lake shrugged his shoulders and said he was simply “happy” while Cotton beamed with excitement, probably anticipating the next benefit of living the “Division-I life.”
Godwin, who raved about the hurlers, matched their enthusiasm.
“Both guys had unique circumstances that brought them to East Carolina,” Godwin finished. “They bring something different to the table. Jharel brings experience that we will need immediately and Deshorn has the tools to help him go from a good pitcher to a great pitcher right before our eyes. I’m as excited for them as they are to be here.”