MOREHEAD CITY — Bryson Willis is making the best of a tough situation.
The West Carteret outfielder had big dreams of playing Division I baseball, but after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out his junior season, he scrambled to find any program with an opening.
He ended up finding a good one in one of the best junior college teams in the state at Wake Technical Community College.
“They are really good,” Willis said. “They are one of the best JUCO programs around. And coach (Robert Dudley) is a pretty cool guy. He’s young, but he knows what he is doing.”
The Eagles were 28-15 overall and 14-9 in Region X when the season was canceled due to the pandemic.
They were second in the conference and third in the nation in stolen bases, tied for second in the conference and tied for fourth in the nation in triples, third in the conference and tied for seventh in the country in home runs, second in the league and eighth in the nation in walks, and tied for first in the conference and tied for ninth in the nation in strikeouts.
Willis will see a familiar face on the team in the form of former West teammate Josh Plisko who likewise committed to Wake Tech as a high school senior.
“My sophomore year, he let me know about their coach, and I just built a relationship with (Dudley) from there,” Willis said. “Josh lives in an apartment up there. I stayed with him for a night or two, visited a practice, met all the guys, and the coaches, and it was great. I loved it.”
Plisko redshirted as a freshman, and with the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), as well as the National College Athletic Association (NCAA), granting student-athletes an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, he will still be there when Willis shows up next fall.
The extra year of eligibility helped Willis in that instance. It wasn’t always the case during the pandemic.
He was seriously looking at a Mount Olive program that was ranked as high as No. 7 last season in the Division II Poll before concluding the season ranked No. 17.
The Trojans were 19-4 when the season was shut down last spring and were led by seven position players, including former West standout Joe Mason and former Croatan standout Gunner Tolston who were in their final season of eligibility.
“I have a good relationship with their coach, Jesse Lancaster, because he’s been following me since eighth grade,” Willis said. “He told me they have so many seniors coming back because of COVID, I probably wouldn’t get to play until my junior or senior year.”
When Willis talked with Dudley, the Wake Tech coach told him all of the Eagles’ outfielders were graduating, so Willis should have a good chance of playing during his freshman year. That certainly helped him with his college decision.
When Willis showed up at West as a freshman, he had his college sights set high. He wanted to play at N.C. State.
“Bryson is one of those guys who we knew when he came on as a freshman, he was going to be able to hit,” West coach Brooks Jernigan said. “We knew Bryson Willis could hit. He came in as a catcher, and he caught for a year or so and then made the transition to outfield, where he had never played before, and now he has made himself into a really good outfielder.”
Willis helped the Patriots (16-9) advance to the third round of the 3A state playoffs for the first time in 12 years after earning a 3-2 win over South Johnston in the second round and also helped the squad win the 3A Coastal Conference with a 9-2 mark.
West (17-5) repeated as the league champion in his sophomore campaign with a 9-1 record. He ranked second on the team with a .404 average and tallied 16 RBIs and 12 runs scored in 19 games.
“I wanted to play so bad my junior year, because my sophomore year, I played pretty well, so I was so ready,” Willis said. “I trained so hard for my junior year because I knew that is when colleges are going to see me.”
He was hitting .467 last season with two doubles and four RBIs when the pandemic ended the year.
“Up until COVID, I said I was going DI,” Willis said. “But then COVID happened. I was talking to N.C. State pretty heavy before then, and I thought it was going pretty well. Then COVID happened, and no DI has hit me up since then. Not one. There is nothing I can do about it now. It sucks, but I’ve just got to get over it.”
Willis hopes with two strong years at nearby Wake Tech he can still realize his dream of playing at N.C. State. He’s shown he’s willing to do what it takes to make that happen. He works out three days a week with trainer Grant Kelley at the Sports Center and is hitting and throwing on other days, making sure he’s doing something to prepare himself every day. He said it’s been that way since he was 10 years old.
“During the summers, friends will be hanging out, having a good time, and I’m on a baseball field,” he said. “I’d rather be nowhere else. That is what I’ve wanted to do since I was young, is play college baseball.”
His coach has no doubts a four-year school will get a steal when the time comes.
“He is a really good baseball player, and it’s hard to be good at baseball,” Jernigan said. “It takes a lot of time. I know how hard he works. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I know how often he is out there hitting. He constantly works. Even during COVID, he was texting me all the time, ‘Let’s go hit, let’s go do something.’ He just loves the game. He deserves every opportunity he gets.”