East Carolina is set to host the 16th annual Keith LeClair Classic in the stadium that bears the former Pirate baseball coach’s name.
The schedule had been adjusted due to the forecast of rain later today. Western Carolina, LeClair’s alma mater, and Wright State will open play at 11 a.m. The ninth-ranked Pirates will take on Utah approximately 45 minutes after the first game at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
LeClair coached ECU from 1997 to 2002, compiling a record of 212-96-1. The Pirates won three Colonial Athletic Association championships and one Conference USA title during that time, making four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. LeClair won three Southern Conference Coach of the Year awards while at Western, where he had a 229-135 record. He guided the Catamounts to three Southern Conference regular-season crowns and three SoCon tournament championships before coming to ECU.
Pirates coach Cliff Godwin wears No. 23, the same number as LeClair. Godwin played for LeClair.
“I redshirted my freshman year,” Godwin said. “That summer, Coach LeClair was hired as the new head baseball coach at East Carolina. So, I played my entire four years under Coach LeClair. I redshirted and was recruited under Coach O (Gary Overton).
“The biggest thing, he (LeClair) brought a vision to East Carolina baseball. His goal was for us to play in the College World Series. Obviously, we haven’t reached that goal yet, but the thing we have done is we’ve elevated the program.
“Anytime people set goals, you want to set them extremely high, the highest you can and then if you fall short, you’re still pretty good.
“Coach LeClair shared a vision that we could get there when a lot of us that were on the team at the time had no idea that we could play in the College World Series.
“The other thing is he took a group of guys and changed our mentalities. He made them believe they worked harder than anybody else in the country and, no matter how highly recruited they were, that they could beat anybody in the country. Really, it was a blue collar and a toughness and a grittiness that he brought to our program.”
LeClair left coaching as he battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He passed away on July 17, 2006.
His family will be on hand during this year’s event.
“They will be,” Godwin said. “Lynn (wife), J.D. (son) and Audrey (daughter) will be coming this weekend.”
ECU comes into the LeClair Classic with a 6-3 record. Bryant Packard, the preseason American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, has seen action in just five games.
“Pack had a play in left center … ,” Godwin said. “He tried to catch himself on a fall … and he just had a bad strain in his (left) hand in the thumb area. It was just really painful for him to swing a bat because it’s right where the bat lays. Monday (vs. Air Force) was the first time that he’s actually taken full swings and he told me that he wanted to play. It was a game-time decision.
“I really didn’t think he would play Monday, but it wasn’t anything that was going to hurt him worse. It was just kind of towards his pain tolerance. Monday was the first time he was able to do that. He was able to play.”
Packard is hitting .267. He had a .406 average last season.
Spencer Brickhouse, who had 10 home runs and 50 RBIs for last year’s AAC Tournament champions, continues to be sidelined after hitting .333 through four games.
“Spencer has a strain in his oblique area,” Godwin said. “It’s just a strain. He’s just working to get that healthy. Once he gets healthy, he’ll be able to get back in the lineup. No idea (on the timetable). … We’re protecting the kid’s health. That’s our No. 1 priority. We can’t just put him out there and he swings the bat one time and he’s right back to where he was. We’ve got to put him through some strength exercises, twisting, some turning, some high intensity stuff. Once he starts feeling better, we’ll put him back out there in a game situation.”
Monday play at plate
Lane Hoover was called out at the plate on Monday in the fifth inning as he tried to tag and score from third on a fly out to center. The Pirates eventually absorbed a 3-2 loss to Air Force. Replays showed Hoover might have gotten his right hand on the plate as the tag was applied on his diving slide.
“John Haggerty is a great umpire,” Godwin said. “He was right there. He actually told me to not waste my time in a nice way. … I just said. ‘John, it’s too close of a play for us not to just review it.’ So they reviewed it, the umpires did. Obviously, there wasn’t enough evidence there to overturn his call.”
Air Force arrived in Greenville after taking two wins over Navy at Grainger Stadium in Kinston.
“They’re a well-coached team, for sure, and they have some good players,” Godwin said. “They were ready to play. They played well. Our guys were ready to play. They just did a little bit more than we did. Their pitchers really did a good job of keeping us off balance. At the end of the day, what people need to realize is I want to win every game more than any person on this planet.
“But, at the end of the day, baseball is different. We play 56 regular season games where football plays 12. So, yes, when football loses a game, that’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. … We’re going to be fine. A saying that Coach LeClair used to always say when I was a player, ‘Its a marathon, not a sprint.’ … We are where we are. We’ve had two of our best players being hurt and we’ll get better.
“I have 100 percent confidence in our players, our coaching staff and everybody else.”
The field for the LeClair Classic is assembled well ahead of time.
“It’s years in advance,” Godwin said. “Utah showed some interest so we got them to come in here. … Western Carolina has come in here a few times. They have a tie to Coach LeClair. Coach LeClair played there and coached there before he came to East Carolina. It’s always good to have those guys in the tournament as well.”
LeClair had a .375 career batting average at Western and was MVP of the 1988 Southern Conference Tournament. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves.
Alec Burleson is hitting .588 with two homers and 10 RBIs. He’s 1-0 as a pitcher with a 2.25 earned run average.
“He’s played really well,” Godwin said. “He does a lot for us. I’m sure on Sunday that he was physically and mentally tired. Pitching in game one on Saturday and playing in a doubleheader. I tried to get him out of the game in the doubleheader in the second game since we were winning pretty handily as early as I could, just to get him off of his feet.
“He’s been unbelievable for us. We’ve always thought very highly of Alec. Last year, he battled through an appendicitis. That set him back, hitting-wise, some last year in the middle of the season, but he has done a lot of great things for us offensively and on the mound.”
The Pirates did not practice Tuesday before posting a 5-3 home win over Elon on Wednesday.
“We have to give them one day off a week, per NCAA rules,” Godwin said.
ECU had a light workout on Thursday with a lifting session.
“There’s not a lot practice-wise going on this week, just because we’re playing so many games,” Godwin said. “We always go over every game in detail and talk about the things we did a good job of and things we need to work on to get better throughout the season.”
The takeaways from Air Force?
“Jake Kuchmaner pitched well,” Godwin said. “We played good defense. We executed at times when we had to offensively and at times, we didn’t. We didn’t put enough quality at-bats together late in the game when they brought their reliever (Nathan Price) in. But, like I said, it’s a long season. You could look at play two days from now and say, ‘That’s the best offensive team in the country.’ Then the next day, we score one run and you guys think we’re the worst in the country. Baseball is the most unique sport of any of the sports.
“You can do everything right and line out to somebody and you’re out. That doesn’t show up in the box score. In football, you throw a pass to your receiver. It’s on the money, most of the time your receiver is going to catch the ball. You can’t guarantee that in baseball. Because you smoke a ball, there’s nine defenders out there that can make a play on the baseball.”
Godwin was asked if he had noticed any trends in college baseball this season.
“I’m pretty consumed with our team,” Godwin said. “I don’t get focused on what other people are doing a whole lot. … There’s so much parity in college baseball. In my opinion, baseball is different than basketball and football, where more times than not, the most talented team wins. The most physically-gifted, athletic team wins. In baseball, that’s not the case. If you look around college baseball, you see teams losing games where on paper, the other team is a lot better.”