ECU baseball gets ready for NCAA Tournament
Just inside the gates of the pristine Clark-LeClair Stadium, a perfect college baseball stadium if there is one, is a two-story brick siding with a list of East Carolina’s accomplishments.
A national championship (in the NAIA back in 1961), is celebrated along with conference championships, individual accolades, NCAA tournament appearances and four trips to the NCAA Super Regional round.
There’s one hole on the resume. The Pirates haven’t been to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. As a regional host, and No. 10 national seed in this NCAA tournament, they could change that this season.
The Pirates (43-15) will face Quinnipiac (29-27) in their first game of the double-elimination Greenville Regional on Friday night (6 p.m.). N.C. State will open regional play against Campbell at noon at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
Not that fifth-year ECU coach Cliff Godwin is specifically looking for validation for his program, which averages nearly 40 wins per year, has won three conference titles, is consistently ranked in the top 25 and is a regional host for the second straight year and reached the Super Regionals in 2016.
“I tell this team, I’m telling all of Pirate Nation: don’t put the ‘Omaha-or-bust’ on this team because this team is not one of the other 28 teams that have made a regional and not been to the World Series,” Godwin said.
“Look, there’s a lot of people, including myself, that want this program to get to the College World Series. We’re going to get there. I don’t know if it will be this year but we’re going to get there because we do things the right way. We’ve got the best support staff, the best coaching staff and the best players. I wouldn’t trade our players for anybody in the country.”
That’s a long answer, one Godwin was itching to give. The original question to Godwin, 41, was about the importance of winning the regional, after losing to UNC-Wilmington here last year, and not the CWS. But the Pirates have the onerous tag of having the most NCAA appearances (this is their 30th) without making it to the CWS (which is made up of the final eight teams in the 64-team field).
Godwin, who played for the Pirates during the program’s national revival from 1998 to 2001 under coach Keith LeClair, wears his passion for his school on his sleeve. His players wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He’s a players’ coach,” junior Bryant Packard, a homegrown star from Greenville, said. “We love him, he loves us. We play for him. He does a really good job with the culture here.”
On Tuesday, five different ECU players met with the media before practice. They all talked about the program’s style of play and brand, which is a direct reflection of Godwin.
Being “gritty, tough and aggressive” and attacking “everything that we do,” is how first baseman Spencer Brickhouse, a junior from Zebulon, described ECU’s brand.
“Flying around, playing hard, playing for the fans and playing for each other,” was Packard’s description.
Both are in step with Godwin’s definition of “just flying around the field and playing their tails off.”
That formula has been successful for Godwin and the Pirates this season. They blasted through the American Athletic Conference with a 20-4 record. They also picked up road wins over Ole Miss and North Carolina, a pair of national seeds, outside of league play.
Packard has fought through some injury issues to hit .349, one of six regulars hitting better than .300. Alec Burleson, of the best two-way players in the country, leads the team with RBIs and a .370 average. The sophomore lefthander also has a 5-1 record with a 2.98 earned run average.
The Pirates have strong starting pitching, junior Jake Agnos (10-2, 2.00 ERA) was the conference pitcher of the year, to go with an outstanding hitting lineup.
Experience is also on the Pirates’ side. Most of the same juniors have been together since the program started the 2017 season as a top-10 team but was derailed by injuries.
They came back last year, won the American tournament and then was a regional host for the first time since 2009. But last year’s regional ended in frustration after beating UNCW in the opening game, the Pirates lost consecutive games to South Carolina and UNCW.
A 1-2 showing in the American tournament last week likely cost them one of the top 8 national seeds (despite a No. 5 RPI ranking) and raised some old questions about postseason success.
“I’ll be honest with you, when you go on social media and you see people like ‘ECU can’t clutch it up in the postseason’ it fires me up,” Agnos said.
With a raucous crowd, and expected sellout of 5,000, at Clark-LeClair Stadium for the regional and the visit from N.C. State, there’s no doubt ECU will be fired up.
All those years, ECU had to go to UNC or N.C. State. Not this time. Maybe this is the opportunity ECU needed.
“We can’t really look back on the past,” Brickhouse said. “It’s kind of human nature to go back and look at the past and try to dwell on it. There’s no point in that. You can’t do anything about it.
“So we just take it one day at a time from here on out and try to get better from what we did yesterday and not what we did last week.”
ECU vs. Quinnipiac
NCAA baseball tournament, Greenville Regional
When: 6 p.m., Friday
Where: Clark-LeClair Stadium, Greenville