With only a few exceptions, most college athletic programs are defined by their highest profile sport.
Alabama, for example, is known as a football school. Duke and North Carolina are basketball schools. At East Carolina, it’s baseball that takes center stage.
With all due respect to coach Skip Holtz’s Conference USA championship teams of 2008-09 and several other notable football squads in the decades before that, no sport has brought the Pirates more consistent recognition and success over an extended period of time.
It’s a legacy that dates back to the 1961 NAIA national baseball championship and includes 29 trips to the NCAA tournament since becoming a Division I program. Baseball’s stature at ECU has only grown over the past few years because of the struggles endured by the school’s other revenue sports and the promise for the future that a recent event has given to every non-Power 5 baseball program in the country.
Schools such as ECU can never realistically hope to play in the College Football Playoff, no matter how many games they win or how few they lose. Just ask UCF. While getting into the NCAA tournament field is actually an attainable goal in men’s basketball, the odds against advancing more than a round or two are astronomical.
But as Coastal Carolina proved in 2016, anyone in any conference with an automatic bid has a legitimate shot at getting to Omaha for the College World Series and winning the whole thing.
And this year’s Pirates stand as good a chance at pulling off a similar feat as anyone.
Coach Cliff Godwin’s team got the new season off to a winning start this weekend with a three-game sweep of Radford. While the results are nothing to get overly excited about, considering the quality of the opponent and the long grind that lies ahead, they at least served to whet the appetite of a fan base starved for something positive to cheer about.
Exactly how much cheering they’ll do between now and June will depend on the bats and arms of a veteran core of players that came to ECU in 2016 as the highest-rated recruiting class in school history.
Ranked 25th nationally by Baseball America upon their arrival, the group that included current contributors Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse, Jake Agnos, Trey Benton, Tyler Smith, Dusty Baker and Nick Barber has already been through a lot during their careers with the Pirates.
They suffered through the disappointment of a promising freshman season that was derailed by a spate of injuries and bad luck. As sophomores, they helped the Pirates rebound by winning the American Athletic Conference tournament championship and hosting an NCAA regional at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
“I think their freshman year was kind of a blur,” Godwin said. “Everybody came in with a lot of expectations and a lot of bad stuff happened to us, but it definitely tested them for last year. I thought those guys played more like juniors last year than they did sophomores.”
But even with their success, those players still came away feeling unfulfilled after being eliminated on their own home field by in-state rival UNC Wilmington. That experience has provided them with more motivation than ever to fulfill their collective promise and finish the job they came to do.
The sense of urgency is even higher for the best of the bunch — particularly 2018 AAC Player of the Year Packard, power-hitting first baseman Brickhouse and hard-throwing pitchers Benton and Agnos — since they’re likely to be selected in the Major League draft at the end of this season.
Not that they’re thinking that far ahead just yet.
“Obviously they all want to play professional baseball, but that’s something they can’t control and I can’t control,” Godwin said. “We’re just focusing on ourselves and getting a little bit better every day.”
Already ranked 11th nationally and the preseason favorite to win the ACC, the Pirates are off to a good start with their opening weekend sweep of Radford. They averaged eight runs per game against the Highlanders, with stars Packard and Brickhouse each hitting homers and combining for seven RBIs. Sophomore Alec Burleson and redshirt junior Jake Washer had six hits apiece while the pitching staff stood out in two of the three games.
With two more highly-rated recruiting classes brought in behind the transformative group of juniors, Godwin has put together the deepest, most experienced and most talented team he’s had — one with a chance to do something special and further solidify ECU’s reputation as a baseball school.
“When people come to East Carolina to play baseball, their expectations are to win at a high level, to win championships, to host regionals and put ourselves in a situation to compete for a national championship,” Godwin said. “… We’re going to focus on dominating our daily schedules, focus on the process of getting one percent better.
“We look at our organization as a boat. We’re going to try to make our boat go faster and make sure it has the right direction. We’re going to be elite in everything we do and then we’re going to love each other. If we do that we’re going to be fine, because our culture is going to be in the right place.”