The addition of athletic director Jon Glbert, basketball coach Joe Dooley and football coach Mike Houston has created optimism at East Carolina, but if you’re looking for a sport that can potentially produce immediate results baseball is the best bet.
It was recently announced that ECU has been picked as the preseason favorite in the American Athletic Conference.
“It’s just like I told our players,” Pirates coach Cliff Godwin said. “It’s a great reflection of what our program has done previously. That’s awesome, but it’s going to have no bearing on what we do this year. Just because people vote you preseason all-conference, All-American, Player of the Year or to finish first in the conference, it doesn’t mean anything.
“We need to focus on being the best versions of ourselves every single day and not worrying about what everybody else thinks about us and just doing what we do.”
Many recall that ECU also was picked to win the AAC in 2017. The Pirates went 32-28 and sat out of the NCAA Tournament.
“We had a bad season in 2017,” Godwin said. “Injuries played a role, but we were not equipped with where we needed to be culture-wise to handle that stuff. That falls on me because I’m the head coach.
“We need to focus on us. We need to focus on getting one percent better every day and not worrying about all the external noise, social media stuff because if we read into that, we’re not going to be very good.”
The Pirates started 2017 at Ole Miss, Godwin’s last stop as an assistant before returning to ECU. The Pirates started that season 0-3 in that initial series.
The upcoming season starts at home against Radford on Friday, Feb, 15, at 4 p.m.
The Pirates were 44-18 in 2018, won the league tournament and hosted an NCAA Tournament regional. Right-handed pitcher Chris Holba (9-1) and Dwanya Williams-Sutton, who hit .331, were among the personnel losses.
“You have (personnel) losses every year,” Godwin said. “Guys graduate. Guys get drafted. We probably have more returners than we’ve ever had here. We have guys who have played every day, which doesn’t mean anything other than they have experience.
“We do feel good about the newcomers and the guys that have come in this fall. We feel very confident that every position has depth. It’s not just one guy. Obviously, on the mound, we feel like we have guys who can fill different roles.”
Potential weekend starters
Holba was ECU’s Friday night starter. There is no lack of candidates for the weekend rotation.
“Going down the roster, obviously, Jake (Agnos) will be in that mix,” Godwin said. “Alec Burleson will be in that mix. Tyler Smith will be in that mix. Trey Benton will be in that mix. Gavin Williams will be in that mix. Jake Kuchmaner will be in that mix. There’s other guys, but those guys would be the ones I would say have the best chance for weekends. We need guys to be very good at being themselves and whatever their roles are.
“Last year, our pitching staff did a really good job of not worrying about who the Friday night starter was — if you were pitching on Friday, being very good. If you were pitching on Saturday, being a Friday night starter pitching in a Saturday role. Also on Sunday, if you look at what Chris Holba did beginning the year pitching on Sundays. And then what Tyler Smith did as well. And then worked their ways up to an earlier start day on the weekend because of how they performed.”
Packard preseason AAC Player of the Year
Bryant Packard hit .406 for the Pirates last year with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs. He has been named preseason Player of the Year in the AAC.
“We lost some guys but I don’t know if the top of our order will change a lot,” Godwin said. “When you look at it, Packard and (Spencer) Brickhouse are going to hit in the top of the lineup. … (Jake) Washer is back. Brady Lloyd is back. Alec Burleson’s back so we feel pretty good about what our lineup is going to be.
Godwin doesn’t think opponents will be able to pitch around Packard.
“I don’t think we have to worry,” said the former academic All American. “They’re going to pitch him tough with what he’s done here, but at the end of the day, there’s going to be another good hitter behind him and two spots behind him that’s going to make them pay if they continue to pitch around him.”
Batting cages complete
Focused work in practice is an essential element of ECU baseball culture in Coach Godwin’s approach. There are new batting cages to facilitate development in that aspect of the game.
“The facility is fully functional,” Godwin said. “We’re still in the process of adding some graphics on the walls, but as far as us going in there, getting work done, hit at any point in time during the day, it’s fully functional.”
The 2019 schedule includes Utah, Wright State and Keith LeClair’s alma mater, Western Carolina, for the LeClair Classic, which is set for March 1-3. The Pirates play at Mississippi State on March 5 and visit Ole Miss on March 6. ECU has midweek games with Duke on March 12 in Durham and April 3 in Greenville.
ECU travels March 15-17 for a weekend series with Maryland.
The Pirates host UNC-Wilmington on March 20 before starting league play at home against Central Florida on March 22.
“Every year we try to put together a very challenging schedule just so we can put ourselves in a position to hopefully host a regional, host a Super Regional and put ourselves in the best situation to do that,” Godwin said. “Obviously, we have to play well. We have to take care of what we can take care of. Yeah, there’s a lot of great teams, a lot of great, quality opponents, but it’s like I keep saying, we just need to focus on us being very good at being us and being the best version of ourselves. If we do that, then we’ll be in good shape.”
After a game at UNCW on April 9, ECU plays three games at UCLA on April 12-13.
“It’s an inexact science,” Godwiin said of scheduling. “We have a bye weekend in our conference schedule. That’s why we’re going to UCLA this year. Last year, we went to Washington. That’s not a perfect scenario by any means but at the end of the day we get to go across the country and play a quality opponent.
“It’s fun for our guys, but that’s just the way the conference schedule shakes out. You’ve got to find somebody that has the same bye weekend. Our schedule has not been coming out as early as we would like as coaches. It just puts us in a little bit of a bind to try to find a good quality opponent on that bye weekend.”
The Pirates play North Carolina in Chapel Hill on May 8.
The AAC Tournament is in Clearwater, FL, May 21-26.
The Pirates have a strong nucleus returning.
“I thought last year’s group really did a great job of just showing up with intent and energy and being elite at whatever we were doing every day,” Godwin said. “That showed in the body of work that we had — win 44 games, win a conference tournament championship, to be able to host a regional on campus for only the second time in school history. That’s a tremendous credit to them. We can learn if you’re consistent at your work, the results will be consistent. You have to look at the body of work and, obviously, the body of work was pretty consistent.”
Godwin has spent a little time with the new athletic director.
“I met with him very briefly, but Jon is a great guy,” Godwin said. “I’m very excited to be able to work with him. I’m just super excited that we have the leader of our athletic department. I think he’s super excited to be here to continue to move our athletic programs forward. … As an athletic director, he wants every program to be the best they can be. I’m sure he wants us to be great, just like I do. I think we’re on the same page.
“He’s worked at a lot of different places. Obviously, the previous stop, Southern Miss. He was the athletic director there. The baseball coach there, Scott Berry, who is a very good friend of mine, raved about Jon and just how great he was and the type of leader he was.”
The ECU coaching staff returns intact and there have been some spring-like days in the winter that favor baseball workouts.
“The weather has been great,” Godwin said. “We’ll definitely enjoy every good day we can get, getting ready for the season.”
Banquet in new site
A large gathering is anticipated for the 2019 ECU baseball banquet.
“Our baseball banquet is Feb. 9,” Godwin said. “We’re actually having it at the new student center this year. It’s been in Minges (Coliseum) the past few years, so we’re pretty excited. It looks like we have a chance to have the most people there that we’ve ever had. You get to get autographs from 5 to 6 p.m. from all the players.
“At six o’clock, the banquet starts and this year, Eddie Loesner, is going to speak. Eddie Loesner played here. He was director of baseball operations here when I played here. Now, he’s the head baseball coach at Farmville Central. And Chris Holba, who obviously was a Friday night starter and the 11th round pick by the (St. Louis) Cardinals. Those two guys will speak and we’ll hear from the seniors as well.
“It’s a really good event and the public is really excited. It kind of kicks off the baseball season.”
Godwin wearing No. 23
Godwin plans to wear No. 23 in memory of Coach LeClair until the Pirates make it to the College World Series.
“We haven’t been to Omaha yet,” Godwin said. ” … There’s nobody here that doesn’t work at getting to that place every single day. It’s just a process. At the end of the day, East Carolina has never been, so it’s not like it’s easy to get there.”