Keith LeClair’s dream of getting a team to the College World Series was at least partially realized last June when two of his former East Carolina players, Michigan coach Erik Bakich and assistant Nick Schnabel, led the Wolverines to a Super Regional championship and a trip to Omaha.
It was an accomplishment that would undoubtedly have meant the world to the late baseball coach.
About the only thing that could possibly have made him even happier is if his beloved Pirates could have gotten there, too, as they are currently coached by a notable former ECU teammate of Bakich and Schnabel — Cliff Godwin.
They came close, battling back through the loser’s bracket to win an NCAA regional for the fifth time in school history, only to fall victim to fatigue and some blatantly unfair scheduling in a Super Regional sweep at the hands of Louisville.
As disappointing as the result might have been, the 2019 season represented yet another step in the right direction on the road to Omaha for Godwin and his consistently successful program.
It also taught ECU a valuable lesson.
Not that the Pirates weren’t already aware that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Or in this case, that the most direct route to Omaha is the one that runs through your own home field.
Play well enough to earn a top eight tournament seed and somebody else has to deal with unreasonable travel demands and quick turnarounds, regardless of how many games and rain delays it takes for you to survive your regional.
Godwin and his team were in a position to accomplish that goal last season before flaming out at the American Athletic Conference tournament with a pair of quick losses to Wichita State.
So now the quest begins anew with the start of preseason practice last week.
The Pirates are once again picked to win the AAC, and are armed (literally) and ready to make another deep run into the postseason.
Will they be able to go the distance and finally realize LeClair’s dream of getting all the way to the College World Series?
Preseason All-American Alec Burleson likes their chances.
“We’re going to be good,” he said during his team’s media day event last Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of how good we’re going to be if we come together as one team.”
ECU returns a talented nucleus of 17 veteran players, led by the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year Burleson and Pitcher of the Year, Jake Kuchmaner.
Burleson burst into stardom as both a hitter and pitcher last season by leading ECU in batting average (.370), hits (91), RBI (61) and five other offensive categories while also compiling a 6-2 record with five saves on the mound.
He capped off his big sophomore year by helping the USA Baseball Collegiate National team to series wins against both Chinese Taipei and Cuba last summer.
His versatility provides Godwin a number of different options, especially with a pitching staff that promises to be the strength of this year’s team — even with the loss of ace Jake Agnos and Trey Benton to the MLB draft.
It’s a staff anchored by Kuchmaner, who threw the 28th perfect game in Division I history last March 17 against Maryland, only a week after holding Ole Miss hitless for 8⅔ innings.
He’s likely to be joined in the weekend rotation by hard-throwing Gavin Williams, who after two seasons coming mostly out of the bullpen is poised to blossom as a starter, and senior Tyler Smith, who took a step back last year after a dominant sophomore season in 2018.
Offensively, there are holes to fill. Bryant Packard, Spencer Brickhouse, Jake Washer and Turner Brown will be tough to replace. But Godwin has enough returning talent — along with a highly-regarded group of 18 newcomers — to carry on with little or no dropoff in production.
As Burleson said, it all depends on how well all pieces of the puzzle fit together.
But as Godwin warns, it takes more than just talented players, the luck of the draw and maybe even a little inspiration from above to complete the journey to Omaha and realize LeClair’s still unfulfilled dream.
“It’s harder to sustain success than to have success for the first time,” Godwin said. “It’s just human nature. Everyone wants to get comfortable and think that just because you put on an East Carolina uniform that you’re going to host a regional. That’s not something that just happens.
“So I 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.”