STANDISH – Craig Woodbrey was on the ground and in survival mode, drawing his knees to his chest and covering his head with his arms. One by one his St. Joseph’s teammates jumped on him. It was a classic dog-pile celebration.

This is what happens when it’s your hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth that drives in the run that not only wins the game, but claims the Great Northeast Athletic Conference baseball title for your team.

This is what happens when everyone knows the road you took to this juncture was filled with potholes and detours.

He’s being set up, thought St. Joseph’s Coach Will Sanborn, as Woodbrey walked to the batter’s box last Sunday. Not to fail, but to succeed.

High school baseball fans remember the hard-hitting senior who played in the outfield and pitched, helping lead Gorham High to the Class B state championship in 2005. He hit .324 for his high school career. He led his conference in the unlikely combination of saves and triples in his junior year.

Just tell me what to do, coach.

Older fans will remember his father, Mark Woodbrey, a talented infielder drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 14th round out of Amherst College. Andre Dawson was selected three rounds earlier that year by the Montreal Expos. Dave Stewart was taken in the 16th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The elder Woodbrey played five seasons in the Giants’ farm system. He left baseball after two seasons at the Double-A level. His minor league career average was .263. Not bad, but not quite good enough.

Instead of going away to college in the Boston area to study business management and play baseball, Craig Woodbrey stayed closer to home to attend St. Joseph’s. And very nearly got lost.

Just tell me what to do, coach.

Woodbrey began his college career as a pitcher. His fastball hit 91 mph on the radar gun.

“It didn’t always go where I wanted it to,” said Woodbrey with a small grin. Still, he was a productive member of the St. Joseph’s staff his freshman season. He was named the team’s most improved player.

A year later he took the mound twice. His arm hurt and his command of his pitches was more inconsistent. He asked Sanborn if he could return to the outfield for his junior year.

Sanborn said yes, but cautioned Woodbrey that in the perpetual cycle of college sports, he was already grooming younger players for the outfield.

No problem, coach.

Woodbrey hit .197 as a junior.

“I was putting too much pressure on myself,” he said. “I was seeing a level of pitching I hadn’t seen before.”

He had lost two seasons struggling to be a pitcher and lost a third trying to rediscover the hitter in him. He had proven himself in high school and had the pedigree of the Woodbrey name. He had every reason to walk away from baseball.

And every reason to stay.

Sanborn typically doesn’t take chances in recruiting prima donnas. After 18 seasons as St. Joseph’s head coach, he measures character and the hunger that can drive individuals.

Woodbrey’s teammates saw bits of themselves in him. If he wanted to fight for a continued spot on the team, they’d stand behind him. Before this season began, Sanborn made no promises about playing time but named Woodbrey one of his three captains.

The player who had always told himself to relax but couldn’t, finally found himself able to do exactly that.

“Baseball is a game” said Woodbrey. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

Someone else might be bitter that three seasons came and went with little satisfaction.

“I have no regrets,” said Woodbrey. “Coach has always stood by me.”

As conference champion, St. Joseph’s already has qualified for the NCAA Division III regional tournament that begins May 19. Woodbrey is hitting .358 with three home runs. He has started 26 of St. Joseph’s 38 games. He was named St. Joseph’s 2010 male athlete of the year.

“He’s an unselfish kid and that’s not the norm in our society” said Sanborn. “Whatever happened to him, he handled it with class.”

Woodbrey may never be at the bottom of another dog pile, but that’s OK. He knows what it feels like.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]