PEMBROKE — Anthony Burke ended his collegiate baseball career by throwing 175 pitches in four days, and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke pitcher started the team’s first round matchup against Columbus State in the NCAA Southeast regional on Thursday, before working four innings of relief in the Braves’ elimination game against North Greenville on Sunday.
“My first couple years of college I came out of the bullpen, so it was good to end my career that way,” Burke said.
Burke spent those first two seasons at Chipola College and the College of Charleston, respectively. He chose to spend his final two years of eligibility at UNCP, and that tenure came to an end on Sunday.
After losing to Columbus State 8-2 in the first round of the regional and battling out a 9-8, 11-inning victory over Lincoln Memorial in their first elimination game, the Braves saw their season come to an end with a 2-0 loss to top-seeded North Greenville.
The loss marked the end of the road for Burke and classmates Aaron Biggerstaff, Dale Masterson and Roberto Rivera.
“I’m not going to be able to replace Anthony. I’m not going to be able to replace Roberto,” UNCP head coach Paul O’Neil said. “Those are two phenomenal players that have been in our program, Roberto for the last three years and Anthony for the last two years. Someone’s going to have to pick up their innings and their at-bats.”
Burke has been the workhorse of UNCP’s pitching rotation over the past two seasons. He went 9-3 with a 3.18 ERA this year, going the distance in four of his final six starts.
Rivera transferred to UNCP from St. Augustine’s after his freshman year. He became the starting center fielder for the Braves and hit hit .362 with 60 runs scored and three triples in his senior campaign.
Both players earned all-conference honors this season.
Along with the experience of relievers Biggerstaff and Masterson, the duo helped the Braves to a 39-15 record this season, including the program’s second consecutive appearance in the Southeast regional.
“We had some outstanding moments as a ballclub where we were very, very good this year,” O’Neil said. “It’s a great building block for us. We’ve got the bulk of our team coming back. Hopefully we can get a little bit better and win that tournament next year.”
The Braves finished 27-2 at home and went 17-12 against Peach Belt Conference competition.
UNCP’s 2-4 record at regionals the past two years is something O’Neil feels his team can improve upon.
“They’ve been there two years in a row,” O’Neil said. “They understand what it’s about. They understand that you have to play very good baseball because all the teams that are there deserve to be there. You’ve got to really capitalize on your opportunities in that type of tournament, because that might be the only opportunity you get.
“I guess it’s laser-type focus, but you can’t be so excited that you’re not yourself. Sometimes guys get anxiety, whether it’s because they’re too excited or nervous. They’re not themselves. The more games you play in that type of environment, the more relaxed you get with it.”
Burke said he hopes to be around when the Braves make another run at the tournament next year. This time, he’ll be coaching.
His guidance would be beneficial for a relatively young pitching staff that posted a combined 5.36 ERA this season.
With Peach Belt Conference batting champion and Freshman of the Year Trey Jacobs returning along with a talented lineup next year, run support might not be an issue for the Braves.
Luke Jackson, who led the team in home runs this season with 12, joins Ethan Baucom, Elijah Helton and Kevon Perkins in UNCP’s group of returning outfielders. Catcher Trevor Clemons, who broke the program record for walks with 44 this season, anchors a group of returning infielders that includes Connor Grainger, Seth Hartings, Jarratt Mobley, Alex Simpson and Fred Stewart.
“I’m hoping we set the foundation,” Burke said of his senior class, while noting that the experience of reaching the NCAA Tournament should help the program’s younger players mature.
“The big takeaway for them is that they’re really good teammates to each other,” O’Neil said. “They pull for one another. That’s going to help carry them forward. They realize we have to get a little bit better. I keep telling them we have to get 10 percent better in everything we do. If we can accomplish that, we’ll put ourselves in a great position to get to the regional next year and hopefully go to the world series.”
Reach Brandon Tester at 910-816-1989 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @BrandonTester.