Of all the things Keith LeClair accomplished in his successful but too-short tenure as baseball coach at East Carolina — including 212 wins, four NCAA tournament appearances and one Super Regional in five seasons — the one thing he didn’t live long enough to do was take a team to Omaha and the College World Series.
It’s a goal many of his former players continue to pursue now that they’ve become accomplished coaches in their own right.
No one is more passionate about the crusade than current Pirates coach Cliff Godwin, who doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his mentor. He also wears LeClair’s No 23 on his purple and gold jersey.
Taking his alma mater to Omaha for the first time in school history wouldn’t just be the crowning achievement of Godwin’s career. It would also add to LeClair’s legacy by completing the job ALS didn’t give him the chance to finish.
Based on how close he’s already come, especially the past two seasons, it figures to be only a matter of time before the dream becomes a reality — as Louisville’s Dan McDonnell said after his Cardinals ended ECU’s latest CWS quest in an NCAA Super Regional last week.
“If they keep that coach and keep that staff, that group is going to bust through to Omaha,” McDonnell said. “And when they do look out, because it will be more than once.”
In the meantime as they once again watch from home, Godwin, the Pirates and the fans can take some solace — and a lot of pride — in the fact that one of their own is representing ECU and LeClair in the eight-team field at TD Ameritrade Park this week.
Actually, two of their own.
The No. 23 on the uniforms of Michigan coach Erik Bakich and his assistant Nick Schnabel are maize and blue rather than purple and gold — yes, they both wear the same number. By leading their Wolverines to a Super Regional upset of top overall seed UCLA last week, the former Pirate teammates have fashioned the ultimate tribute to their former coach.
“I got into coaching because I made a promise to Coach LeClair that myself and my teammates, we would continue his inspiration and continue his legacy and get to Omaha for him, because he never got to go,” Bakich told the Detroit Free Press, adding that he feels LeClair’s influence “every day.”
Bakich was an outfielder with the Pirates in 1999 and 2000, hitting .315 with 14 homers and 85 RBI for his career. Schnabel played second base those same two seasons and was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Player of the Year his junior year.
Godwin was also a member of those teams, both of which won 46 games and advanced to NCAA regionals.
Although Godwin still hasn’t gotten over the sting of this year’s two final losses and the almost impossible circumstances that helped contribute to the outcomes, his disappointment is soothed by the achievement of his friends and former teammates.
“I am thrilled that Erik and Nick get to wear 23 in Omaha honoring our former coach Keith LeClair,” the Pirates coach said. “Erik and Nick are two of my best friends and I could not be happier for them to be able to carry on Coach LeClair’s legacy in Omaha! I will definitely be pulling for the Wolverines this weekend.”
Michigan won’t be the favorite in Omaha, but that won’t be any different from the rest of the postseason. In fact, had the Wolverines not rallied in their final at bat of an elimination game against Illinois at the Big Ten tournament, they probably wouldn’t have even made it into the NCAA’s 64 team field.
A No 3 seed in the regionals, they blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning against host Creighton before bouncing back for a 17-6 win that sent them to the Super Regional against UCLA.
There, Michigan overcame five errors and 10 walks allowed by its pitching staff to do what ECU was unable to do in three tries during the regular season — beat the Bruins on their home field.
“Every team wants to catch lightning in a bottle and play their best baseball at the end of the year and this team did it,” Bakich said. ‘It started in the Big Ten tournament with a walk-off win against Illinois and the confidence we got from that, we’ve just been able to ride that momentum all the way through to this point.”
The Wolverines earned their ticket to Omaha with a 4-3, 12-inning victory in the deciding game last Sunday.
Bakich said the significance of the moment registered on both him and Schnabel immediately.
‘We didn’t even have to say anything,” Bakich said. “We just looked at each other and gave each other a hug. I think we all know (Leclair is) looking down and watching over and very proud.”
Bakich said there’s only one thing that could make the accomplishment even more meaningful.
That, however, will have to wait for another day.
“I hope we all get there — Cliff Godwin at East Carolina and Bryant Ward (the hitting coach) at UCLA, and Nick and I. And I hope we all get there at the same time. Nothing would be better than seeing the four of us there.”
Godwin, Bakich, Schnabel, Ward and other LeClair protégés were likely smiling in unison Saturday as Michigan defeated Texas Tech 5-3 in its College World Series opener.
The Wolverines will play a winner’s bracket game tonight at 7 p.m. against Florida State, which on Saturday prevailed 1-0 over Arkansas. (EDITOR’S NOTE, added June 18, 2019: Michigan defeated the Seminoles 2-0 Monday night behind the three-hit pitching of Tommy Henry, advancing to a Friday matchup with the survivor of Wednesday’s Florida State-Texas Tech game. A victory in that game would land the Wolverines in a best-of-three series next week against the winner of the opposite bracket for the national championship. View the entire bracket.)