CONWAY, S.C.—It's usually not hard to spot Scott Woodward in the Coastal Carolina dugout. Just find the player with the dirtiest uniform.
But that approach didn't work for much the 2009 season, when Woodward missed 22 games with injuries to his hand and ankle. The Chanticleers certainly missed his unyielding attitude. Despite winning 47 games and appearing in regionals for eighth time in nine years, something—or perhaps someone—was missing from their championship formula.
As a freshman All-American in 2008, Woodward willed the Chants to their first regional championship, batting .364 and setting a school record for on-base percentage (.540). That wasn't his biggest contribution, however.
"If he's healthy, he is as relentless of a competitor as there is out there," said Coastal coach Gary Gilmore, entering his 15th year at his alma mater.
Woodward, a third baseman, sports the same chip on his shoulder as the rest the blue-collar Chants, but, as one of the more talented players ever recruited by Gilmore, he doesn't necessarily have to play that way to succeed. It was the combination of talent and intensity that made him a favorite of fans and teammates early in his freshman season.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior doesn't know how else to play. Despite his tremendous skill set, he's been something of an underdog his entire athletic career.
Woodward was stricken with bacterial meningitis as a 14-month-old and nearly died after his temperature reached 106.5 degrees. His parents knew there was a chance the antibiotics that could heal him would make him deaf, but at that point, it was the only option.
He's been hearing impaired ever since. His left ear is totally deaf, and his right only functions with the help of a hearing aid. Yet, Woodward was always an athletic equal of his peers.
"We kind of knew something about him was a little different," said Kevin Woodward, his father. "He was hitting Wiffle balls over the house when he was two years old. He just had that snap to his swing. And you didn't want to be in front of him soft tossing."
In many ways, Woodward's ascension into a top-flight recruit—the Indiana native chose Coastal over Michigan—can be attributed to his impairment. By overloading his other senses, he developed an instinctual feel for baseball and life.
His parents are routinely impressed with the small things he notices, such as the color of the center fielder's shoelaces.
"It makes me a better player, because I pay more attention to detail," Woodward said. "If I don't, I get left out of a lot of things. I have to make sure I know every single thing that goes on throughout the game. I'm more aware of my surroundings than the average person."
"Instinctually, his perception and kinesthetic sense of where everybody is and what is going on is better than anybody I've ever been around," he said. "He has a sense of feel for where guys are that you can't coach. In hinders him in some ways, but with the way and style we play offensively, it's maximized his ability."
Always On Base
Using those instincts in 2008, Woodward drew 58 walks, was hit by a Big South-record 30 pitches, stole 42 bases and committed just seven errors in 64 starts at third base. He opened his sophomore season in the same form, batting .322 in 26 games, before injuries took their toll.
Last April, he broke his thumb stealing second base, and then suffered an Achilles' injury a month later in his second game back. He returned in time for Coastal's final regular-season series, but he never recaptured his top form again, barely maintaining an average over the Mendoza line in the final 11 games.
"You can do anything you want to do to prepare for the pitching you're going to face, but toward the end of the season you're not going to see any of your pitchers against you in practice, because we were preparing for the Big South tournament," Woodward said. "You're not used to seeing the pitching every day. So, it was hard to pick up where I left off."
Woodward's absence and impending struggles were tough on his teammates as well. Coupled with a season-ending leg injury to outfielder Chance Gilmore, the coach's son, Coastal found itself without a productive lefthanded batter in the starting lineup, a factor that hindered the Chants down the stretch.
Last summer, Woodward eventually rebounded to hit .246 and steal 28 bases after a slow start with Bourne of the Cape Cod League. After what he called the best fall of his career, he has regained his confidence, his health and his place in the lineup.
He is a key cog on what might be the most talented team in school history. Coastal is ranked 12th to start the season, the first time the Chants have been ranked in BA's preseason Top 25.
"Every time Scott takes the field and every time he comes up to bat, we feel like we have a great chance to do a lot of things," said Coastal outfielder Rico Noel, the Big South preseason player of the year. "He's a big piece of our puzzle and with him healthy again, if he does the same type of things he did his freshman year, we'll go far."
Woodward and Noel, who tied for the national lead with 48 steals last season, have challenged each other to steal 50 bases apiece. If they are able to approach that number, a powerful lineup that also includes seniors Adam Rice, Jose Iglesias and Gilmore and sophomores Dan Bowman and Tommy LaStella, a St. John's transfer, should flourish behind them.
"If the kid that played his freshman year shows up, we can be a whole lot better," Gilmore said of Woodward. "Last year, outside of the series at Hawaii, I'm not sure he was himself all season. Between the injuries and other stuff, he just never found himself offensively. He's definitely an unbelievable catalyst if he's able to do what's in there. He and Rico both force the speed of the game to a level that not a lot of teams in the country have answers to."