East Carolina’s exhilarating 2018 baseball season came to a stunning end Sunday with a soggy 9-7 loss to UNC-Wilmington in the loser’s bracket of the NCAA’s Greenville Regional.
If the festive atmosphere at Clark-LeClair Stadium wasn’t dampened enough by the five-plus hour rain delay that turned the afternoon game into a long day’s journey into night, it was doused even farther by the nine-run Seahawks rally that followed shortly after play resumed.
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The nightmare inning turned a 5-0 Pirates lead into the defeat that will likely linger for a very long time to come on the minds of the players and their fans that experienced it.
That’s understandable, considering the promise this postseason held after coach Cliff Godwin’s team got it started by winning the American Athletic Conference tournament championship and earning an NCAA regional on its own home field.
“I know this hurts the fans because they’ve been waiting for just something to be successful here the past couple of years,” Godwin said in the aftermath of the final game. “Our kids gave it everything they had, but we just didn’t play well enough at the end to win.”
As disappointing as that ending might have been, it shouldn’t become the defining moment of a season that deserves to be remembered fondly rather than tossed into the scrap heap of heartbreak and bad memories.
There were simply too many good things included in ECU’s body of work to let them become an afterthought to one bad inning at the end of it all against a team it had already beaten three times.
Besides, there was no guarantee that the Pirates would beat South Carolina today — twice — and continue along the road to Omaha with a trip to a Super Regional.
The mere fact that they had such a realistic chance of accomplishing that lofty goal is an accomplishment in itself.
It’s easy to forget now after 45 wins and a solid two months of being ranked among the nation’s top 10 that the expectations for this ECU team weren’t that high.
The Pirates were coming off a disappointing 2017 season in which a squad picked to win the AAC didn’t even make it into the NCAA tournament field — and lost a number of key veterans in the process.
They were only picked to finish fourth in the AAC’s preseason poll.
But it became clear early on, thanks to an infusion of energy provided by a group of youngsters playing increased roles and newcomers to the program, that this group had the “it” factor its more experienced predecessor didn’t.
Bryant Packard blossomed into the AAC’s Player of the Year, setting the table from the leadoff spot with a .411 average fueled by a school-record 32-game hitting streak. The sophomore outfielder also led the team with 14 homers.
Fellow second-year players Spencer Brickhouse and Jake Washer each became leaders in their own right while providing significant contributions both offensively and defensively.
Dwanya Williams-Sutton managed to stay healthy for most of the year and returned to the form that made him a freshman All-American. Connor Litton came in as a junior college transfer to fill a hole at third base while a freshman class anchored by AAC Rookie Pitcher of the Year Alec Burleson lived up to its hype as one of the nation’s best recruiting classes.
And the good news is that most of those players will be back to try and go farther next year.
As impressive as the individual performances were, the most impressive aspect of this ECU ball club was the collective grit and resilience it showed throughout the course of the season.
Instead of getting knocked back and never fully recovering from adversity like the 2017 team seemed to do, these Pirates simply brushed it off like a runner removing dirt from his uniform after a head-first slide.
In each of its first two conferences weekends, against Central Florida and Wichita State, ECU lost Friday’s opening game only to bounce back and win the series.
Then after getting swept at home by Houston, essentially ending their hopes of finishing first in the AAC during the regular season, the Pirates bounced right back by taking three straight at Tulane.
The Pirates traveled cross-country to take two of three from Washington, a team that also went to the NCAA tournament.
ECU went 19-4 on the road and dominated in-state competition — winning 15 of its 16 regular season games against teams from North Carolina by an aggregate score of 108-42. Included in that tally were a pair of victories against the Pirates’ UNC System cousins from Chapel Hill.
Most importantly, ECU rallied in support of Godwin and his players, showing up both at Clark-LeClair and in places such as Duke and Chapel Hill in numbers that can’t be ignored.
Then given the national stage of an NCAA regional, Pirate Nation produced one of the best — if not the best — environments in the entire tournament.
Although ECU already had a prominent place on the college baseball map, perhaps the atmosphere of the past few days and the attention it got from the complementary comments of ESPN analysts will finally enlighten at least a few more people out there that this Greenville is located in North Carolina, not that other one South of the border.
That in itself makes this season and the disappointing regional that ended it cause for celebration, even if no one among the Pirates and their loyal legion of fans feels much like celebrating right now.