Those that subscribe to the Vince Lombardi philosophy that ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,’ aren’t going to want to hear this. But there’s just as much truth to the contrary view taken by another legendary coach, basketball hall of famer Morgan Wootten, who said that if you learn something from defeat, you haven’t really lost.
The latter approach is the one East Carolina’s baseball team was forced to adopt recently after a winless trip to Southern California.
While the three close losses to top-ranked UCLA were frustrating and will go down as an unfortunate blemish on the Pirates’ otherwise exemplary record, they could turn out to be useful in the long run because of the experience gained by coach Cliff Godwin’s 12th-ranked team.
That’s especially true if ECU should happen to advance to an NCAA Super Regional next month and face a similarly talented opponent on its home field — as former ECU third baseman and current Bruins assistant coach Bryant Ward told Godwin after UCLA’s 8-5 win in the series opener two Fridays ago.
It was one two games in which the Bruins beat the Pirates by scoring in their final at bat.
“He said, ‘That was like a Super Regional-type atmosphere,’ ” Godwin said of Ward. “Every pitch was the difference between winning and losing the game. I felt like that all weekend. It wasn’t an intimidating crowd, but you knew if you made a bad pitch or you weren’t on your A-game offensively or defensively, they were going to make you pay for it.”
Godwin didn’t have to schedule such a difficult test for his team on its open week in the American Athletic Conference schedule. He could easily have padded the Pirates’ record by playing at home against a lesser nonconference foe.
But when you’ve set the bar as high as he and his players have and have hopes of making a deep run into postseason, you don’t take the easy way out. You challenge yourself to be the best by playing the best. Even if it means there’s a chance you might lose.
“It’s going to make us better,” Godwin said of the UCLA series. “We’re going to learn from it.”
In order to make the most of the lesson, though, ECU must first keep itself in a position to win the AAC, host an NCAA regional and do a better job of exploiting the homefield advantage than it did a year ago.
And they did just that last week.
Despite having to deal with some unexpected travel issues on the return trip from the West Coast, the Pirates bounced back on Tuesday to beat Colonial Athletic Association leader Elon to complete a stretch in which they played 11 of 12 games on the road.
They then celebrated their return to Clark-LeClair Stadium by sweeping conference rival Connecticut over the Easter weekend.
The three straight victories were significant, not necessarily because of how they were achieved — although Jake Agnos’s continued mound domination and Spencer Brickhouse’s power display, among other aspects, were important. But rather, because they put ECU in the driver’s seat for the AAC regular season championship.
At 11-1 in the conference (29-10 overall), the Pirates have now swept three of the four league opponents they’ve played and enjoy at least a six-game cushion on everyone other than 8-3 Tulane, which they play this weekend. A series win against the Green Wave at Clark-LeClair would all but wrap up the crown and ensure ECU of the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament.
But that’s the farthest thing from Godwin’s mind right now.
“Our goal was never to be 11-1 in the conference,” he said. “It’s just to keep playing good baseball.”
That and to continue putting to good use the lessons learned in a winless but not lost weekend in Southern California.