East Carolina was a win away from Omaha and the College World Series to end the 2016 season.
The Pirates had the potential winning run 90 feet away in the Super Regional at Texas Tech in an extra-inning contest after taking the opening game against the Red Raiders.
ECU opens the 2017 season on Feb. 17 at 5 p.m at Ole Miss, the program that Pirate alumnus and ECU coach Cliff Godwin helped to the CWS before returning home.
The offseason has been productive. ECU is picked to win the American Athletic Conference and the national polls have recognized the potential of the Pirates. A solid recruiting class has joined a group of experienced and talented returning players.
“Everything has gone great,” Godwin said of the offseason. “Our guys got back after Christmas. They’ve really done a good job preparing themselves. The first scrimmage is [today], which is really our first official practice.”
The anticipation for the season may be at an all-time high.
“It’s great any time people are excited about this program,” Godwin said. “Obviously, it’s moving in the right direction. I tell our kids all the time, it’s great for our program. It’s great for recruiting. It’s great for fans.
“But for us, it’s just noise and what we have to do is focus on the process of getting one percent better every single day. If we can be consistent in our preparation, then the wins and losses will take care off themselves.”
Value of Super Regional
The Pirates gained some confidence and experience in the NCAA Tournament last season.
“Last year, when we look back on it, we weren’t very consistent in our body of work through the regular season and then we were able to play our best baseball at the end, which is what you want to do — go on the road and defeat the defending national champions (Virginia) on their home field,” Godwin said. “That, first off, gives the kids a lot of confidence. And then go on the road and win one game at Texas Tech and play 13 innings in a very hostile environment. It gives you two things. It gives you experience. Guys have been in that situation. We have a lot of returners. Then it lets them know how close we are, how close we are to competing in the College World Series and competing for a national championship. I really think that’s given them a little extra drive this fall and for this spring. Hunger or hungry.
“When you have a lot of seniors, it can go one of two ways. It can go, ‘Hey, we’ve done this so many times before,’ and we’re just going to kind of go through the motions or it can go the way it’s gone with us. Guys have really paid attention to detail and really done a good job of continuing to carry on the culture that we’ve had with the younger guys and incoming guys. Really, the younger guys have performed at a higher level earlier because of it.”
The Pirates have added some promising arms to an experienced pitching staff.
“We’re excited,” Godwin said. ” . . . Jacob Wolfe has got experience in the weekend rotation. Really our guys in the bullpen are experienced. You look at Sam Lanier, Matt Bridges and Joe Ingle, a three-headed monster we like to say. Then with the new guys we’re really excited. We’ve got Trey Benton, Jake Agnos, Tyler Smith, a ton of other guys as well.
“We’ve got some older guys within the program, Evan Voliva and Davis Kirkpatrick, who have pitched here before but maybe haven’t pitched to their full potential. Chris Holba is a guy who is coming off a little bit of an arm issue in the fall and he’s really looked good. He’s looking to push for that weekend rotation spot as well. We definitely have more options. We have more left-handed options with Ryan Ross and Hunter Hood out of the bullpen. We’re excited. Now we’ve just got to get those guys in roles to be successful.”
Ace left-hander Evan Kruczynski was 8-1 last season and had a 2.01 earned run average as a junior.
“I think all of his pitches are a little bit sharper,” Godwin said. “He would tell you that everything is a little bit more crisp. His fast ball command is a little bit better. His slider, cutter is a little bit better. His change-up is a little bit better. He’s stronger physically. I would like to think mentally he’s in a much better place, even though he was in a good place last year. He’s going to be in a better place this year.”
Kruzynski has accepted more leadership responsibilities.
“This year he was voted one of the three team captains (Travis Watkins, Eric Tyler),” Godwin said. He’s done a better job with the younger guys, being an assistant coach. I tell our older guys all the time, they’re assistant coaches. They’re out there helping guys, whether it be a drill, whether it be mental. They’re out there just making the transition a lot smoother.”
Left-hander Jacob Wolfe didn’t finish the season as strong as the Pirates would have liked in going 6-4 in 2016 with a 2.95 ERA.
“We really haven’t addressed it a whole lot,” Godwin said of Wolfe’s late season struggles. “We just focused on him trying to be more consistent, be better. Wolfe has always been a guy who has shown flashes of greatness and then have a little hiccup here and there.
“When he pitches against UConn, for whatever reason, that coach is like, ‘Any time we see Jacob Wolfe on the mound when we’re playing you guys, it’s like our guys are defeated before he even toes the rubber.’ We’re just trying to get him to believe in himself like we believe in him. I think he can be more consistent than he has been.”
Godwin gets contract extension
The Pirates extended Godwin’s contract through 2022 after the 2016 season. That won’t change how the Greene Central graduate approaches his tasks at ECU.
“I’ve told people they can put me on a year to year contract,” Godwin said. “The reason I say that is because I want to be evaluated after the end of each year. I feel like I self-evaluate myself better than anybody in the country because I put a lot of pressure on myself. There’s nobody that has higher expectations for Cliff Godwin and this baseball program than myself. That’s not to sound arrogant. That’s just the way I’ve lived my life.”
What did Godwin conclude upon further review of 2016?
“The team and this organization, we have a motto every year,” Godwin said. “Last year, it was ‘whatever it takes.’ This year it is ‘discipline and consistency are our two best friends.’ . . .
“Our goal is to host a regional, host a super regional and win a national championship.
“When you look at our body of work in the regular season last year, we were inconsistent, in my opinion. We never got like on a roll. We played well at the beginning of the season and we played well at the very end. In the middle part, we were just up and down. So how can we be in the organization, more consistent in our preparation? Not necessarily wins but if we prepare a little bit better then we’ll be more consistent. . . . We want to be as consistent as possible — in practice, in the weight room, anything we’re doing to prepare for the season.”
Clark-LeClair Stadium has gotten a makeover. The changes will be on display for ECU’s first home game against LaSalle on Feb. 24 at 4 p.m.
“The new scoreboard’s up,” Godwin said. “It got put up (Wednesday). It’s taken a couple of days for them to get all the panels and stuff.
“We have almost completed the turfing all the foul territory and the bullpens. They’re finishing up that this week as well. We’re getting new padding around the backstop from dugout to dugout. The facility will look a lot different.
“The last piece for this year, we’re getting graphics. When you walk into the stadium, the main entrance, there’ll be some graphics on each side of those big walls and then underneath where the concession stand area is, banners of former major league players who have played in our program. It’ll look a lot different.”
New batting cages will enhance the facility package next year.
“Walter Williams has donated a million dollars so we have the money,” Godwin said. “We’re looking to break ground early next fall so, hopefully, it will be ready for next spring. . . . Basically the road behind the baseball stadium [that runs toward the Ward Sports Medicine Building] will be moved out into the parking lot. The batting cages will be where they are now but they will extend over where that road is right now.”
Homecoming at Ole Miss
Godwin returns to familiar surroundings in three weeks.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “When we agreed to this series three years ago, you look at it and it will be great for our kids.
“Obviously, I have a lot of emotions that will go in there as far as a place I worked very hard for three years. We went to the College World Series. Some of my best friends in the world will be in the other dugout. That’s always tough but I’m excited for our guys.
“Our guys are excited to go play in probably one of the top five baseball atmospheres in the country. It will be a good experience for those guys. If there was ever a team that I think is prepared to go into a very hostile environment, I think it’s this one with all the veteran leadership we have on this team.”
Godwin recruited some of the Rebels that ECU will face.
“Oh yeah, some that I coached,” Godwin said. “The third baseman, Colby Bortles. is one of our recruits. I really recruited him hard out of Florida, coached him his freshman year. A lot of the guys I recruited, I just didn’t coach. But Colby is one of my favorite players, a kid I still stay in contact with.”
New impact players
ECU’s recruiting class is well-regarded. Last year, Dwanya Williams-Sutton hit .360 as a freshman, the highest average in the AAC.
Godwin was asked about newcomers with the potential to impact the program this year.
“On the mound to start with, I think Trey Benton, a right-handed pitcher from West Columbus High School,” said the ECU coach. “If we played tomorrow, he’d be in the weekend rotation. He’s a freshman. I think he’s a guy who’s definitely going to make an immediate impact. Jake Agnos, a freshman, left-handed pitcher. I think he’s going to make an immediate impact, either as a weekend starter, a bullpen guy or a midweek starter. Tyler Smith, another freshman righty from East Surry High School in [Pilot Mountain] North Carolina — I think he’s going to make an immediate impact on the mound.
“Position player-wise, Spencer Brickhouse, a power-hitting left-handed hitter, first baseman/outfielder; Bryant Packard, left-handed hitter from right here in Greenville (D.H. Conley), who I think is going to make an immediate impact. And then Andrew Henrickson is a junior college kid from Pitt Community College, actually originally from Fayetteville (Terry Sanford). If we played tomorrow, he’d start in center field. Those guys are definitely guys who I think are going to make an immediate impact.”