New faces. Same goal. Tried-and-true techniques.
Those were the underlying themes from East Carolina baseball coaches and players at Wednesday’s media day at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
In a full slate of interviews with head coach Cliff Godwin, associate head coach Jeff Palumbo, new pitching coach Jason Dietrich and eight top Pirate players, the stage was set for a 2020 season injected with high hopes after last year’s team finished the regular season 42-13 and won the NCAA Regional on its home field.
“We have so many new guys and so many new arms and so many new pieces to the puzzle, so I’m really excited for the preseason coming up,” said Palumbo. “We don’t know where all the pieces are going to fit, but we’re excited about the talent that they bring to the table.
“We’re not making a ton of adjustments, in terms of how we go about things. When you have a successful year, you’re more working individual to individual, but it’s been great to have these guys come in and see what we do as a program and add to it with some ideas and some new concepts that can hopefully help us move in a new direction.”
The squad, which will hold its first team practice tomorrow and face William & Mary in its season opener on February 14, includes 18 new players, a new pitching coach in Dietrich, a new volunteer assistant (Austin Knight) and a new director of baseball operations (Blake Hardegree). The fall exhibition season and the coming weeks will crystallize the staff’s lineup options and allow veteran players to guide newcomers about the culture and grind of being a Pirate.
“We still have a lot we need to do before the 14th, but we’ve come a long way since the first workout in the fall,” said junior Alec Burleson. “We’re going to be good, it’s just a matter of how good we’re going to be if we come together as one team.”
Part of that Diamond Bucs culture involves a reluctance to look ahead beyond the next challenge; nearly every player spoke of focusing only on each day as the way to reach big goals. That mindset — keeping their head down and doing the work — is Godwin’s defense against a sense of entitlement in a program that has hosted two straight regionals, won 20 conference games last season and enters this year ranked No. 25 in Baseball America’s preseason poll.
“It’s a work in progress,” Godwin said. “I can tell you this, hosting back to back regionals and having guys who’ve played in these regionals, it’s harder to sustain success than to have success for the first time. It’s just human nature, everybody wants to get comfortable and think that just because you put on the East Carolina uniform that you’re going to host a regional. You have to educate the guys, even the older guys, every single day on what it takes to win a national championship and to play in the College World Series and to have consistent performances to allow you to win 20 games in the conference.”
With the addition of new talent like freshmen Zach Agnos and Carson Whisenhunt and junior transfers Matt James and Ben Newton, the preseason will still allow margin for the ECU coaches to make lineup adjustments, but Godwin went position-by-position and gave high marks to Seth Caddell at catcher, Thomas Francisco at first, Connor Norby at second, Ryder Giles at shortstop, Agnos or Alec Makarewicz at third and Burleson, Lane Hoover, Christian Smallwood and Bryson Worrell in the outfield.
The 2020 Pirates have an abundance of talented arms, but Godwin said that if the season were to start today Gavin Williams would start on Friday nights and Burleson would pitch in relief.
Every year the staff has become more astute at managing Burleson’s talent as a two-way player, and Burleson said that he has been able to offer training advice to freshmen Agnos and Whisenhunt, who are also slated to play both ways for ECU, on how to “do pitching work like you’re just a pitcher and doing your hitting work like you’re just a hitter.”
Other tidbits from Wednesday’s media day interviews include:
• Dietrich on the range of talents within ECU’s stable of pitchers: “You want different looks out of the bullpen and you want different arm slots, different arm actions, different actions of the ball. That’s always a good piece of the puzzle so it’s not just the same guy. The arms that we have, it’s a variety, which I like.”
• Giles on moving back to shortstop, the position he played when he was younger before stepping in at third base last year: “You’ve got to be aware of what everybody is doing, you’ve got to know the play before it happens, you’ve got to know where everybody is supposed to be aligned. Your awareness has to be above probably playing another position. But I love it, I love the challenge of it, and just being aware of what everybody else is doing. It makes me better.”
• Caddell on the Clark-LeClair Stadium fans: “It’s amazing playing here, just the atmosphere here. It just takes a little bit of the pressure off. It just makes you feel at ease having the home crowd around you, and I feel like it does give us a really good advantage when other teams come in here.”
• Senior pitcher Tyler Smith on Dietrich, ECU’s new pitching coach: “From day one, we met with him and he told us what he expected. He’s all business. He really knows the game. He doubles up off-speed pitches, I like that a lot, and he’s all about fundamentals — bunt defense, first and third, pickoff moves — small things that people don’t’ see that we do, but we do those every single day.”