Livengood makes good on second chance
Justin Livengood had been away from the game three years when Patrick Koontz invited his friend and former teammate to watch him play in Chapel Hill.
Livengood became a household name in the area over the course of four years playing baseball at Ledford High School. After a successful career with the Panthers, he decided he needed time away from the game to enjoy life away from home for the first time.
Attending Cape Fear Community College, the former Ledford hurler said he wanted to focus on how to "be a student and have a good time." Although he says he doesn't regret not playing immediately after graduating high school, Livengood admits to being more than a little nervous when he explained the rationale behind his decision.
"It was one of the hardest things I've had to do," he said of telling parents, grandparents, coaches and teammates that he was quitting baseball. "As an 18-year-old kid, I knew it would have been wasting my time and the time of any coach I'd play for, as well as the players."
Three years later, he stood in a precarious position as a young man struggling to make sense of a longing for a scene he had mostly tried to avoid. Knowing he still possessed gifts lying dormant since his playing days, Livengood now admits he attempted to keep his mind off baseball and pitching in order not to remind himself of what could have been.
"I didn't want to go watch it, because it was hard to see those guys out there,” Livengood said. “I kind of think in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to play."
Finally allowing himself to be a part of the crowd since about 1,000 days had passed, he could not quite get comfortable sitting in the stands. The game between the University of North Carolina and Koontz's UNC Asheville team was the first Livengood had attended since walking off the mound for what he thought would be the last time.
"I told him to come to the UNC game my junior season in 2011," Koontz said. "I saw other guys in competition, and I asked him, 'Why aren't you playing?' You're just as good, if not better than all these guys out here."
Before the game, Koontz kidded with Livengood that he would hit a home run for him during the game. In his first at-bat, he cranked one over the fence. As it turns out, Koontz wasn't done. He homered again later in the contest.
"By that point, he had chills. He said he wanted to play again," said Koontz. "He took three years off and he's touching 95 on the gun. How do you do that? He's got a lot of God-given ability and he works for everything he has. That's what I respect most about him."
It was Livengood's willingness to put forth maximum effort that has him in the midst of a second NCAA Regional this weekend in Charlottesville, Va. After parting ways with Koontz that day, he was determined to play again and he trained daily to get back into playing shape.
Pounds melted away and his improved conditioning allowed the svelte Livengood — who now stands at 210 pounds — to throw better than ever before. A tryout with the UNC Wilmington coaching staff landed him a spot on the roster.
Seahawks coach Mark Scalf used Livengood sparingly last season, but quietly noted his young pitcher's progress. Livengood only pitched eight innings in 2012, but none were larger than the 2 1/3 scoreless innings he pitched against Delaware in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game. That outing helped earn him the confidence of Wilmington's coaching staff, which has made him a staple at the back end of the bullpen.
In 32 2/3 innings this season, he sports a 1.93 ERA with 47 strikeouts.
"Last year, the coaches gave me a chance," Livengood said. "There was never once a time I was bitter (about the workload). I was just so happy to be apart of something bigger than me. In high school, I was one of the main guys and if I had a bad game, it affected the team. This time, it was just nice to get my bearings back."
Not only did he make it all the way back to a Division I roster, but is now a pivotal player for the Seahawks, which are attempting to advance to a Super Regional for the first time in school history. After bagging the conference championship last year, Wilmington was eliminated from the Raleigh regional by N.C. State, a taste Livengood and his teammates hope to wipe away this weekend.
"I wouldn't trade the last two years of my life in baseball for anything," Livengood said. "Two years ago, I was working in a marina, and now I'm getting ready to get on a bus to play in another regional. It's unreal. Everyday I wake up I thank God I have the opportunity to put on a baseball uniform. It's a blessing."
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org.