Pirate Nation and the college baseball world will never know how good East Carolina might have been in 2020 before the response to the coronavirus pandemic caused the remainder of the season to be canceled.
“We had a really good start to the season,” said Pirates coach Cliff Godwin. “We were 13-4 with a team that a lot of people probably didn’t know outside of the program how good we were going to be.
“We had a lot of pitching depth. We played extraordinary defense. We led the country in fielding percentage, and offensively, we were good.
“We had some injuries, which limited our offense to what it could be at times, but at the end of the day when you look at our numbers I don’t know. In a small sample size, of course, we were a more complete team if you look now at the stat sheet.”
ECU was coming off a 47-18 season in 2019 that ended in a Super Regional at Louisville. The Pirates were 20-4 in the American Athletic Conference, breaking a record for wins that the Cardinals had set when they were in the AAC.
The Pirates have earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament 30 times without reaching the College World Series. Would 2020 have been the year that the streak was broken? We’ll never know.
New way of life
This has been a unique period of life, but academics have continued on a remote basis for Pirate players. Had the season continued, ECU would be playing a conference series at South Florida this weekend.
“My days have run together like everybody else in the world,” Godwin said. “I stopped looking at the schedule a long time ago because once they canceled the season, there was nothing you could look at. We’ve been trying to get our guys through the academic part of school. … Most of them won’t be able to play summer ball. We’ll get our guys on a plan to get ready to get back here in the fall — compete and work out and do all those things. Most every summer league has been canceled.
Another strong GPA
Godwin was an academic All-American during his career as a catcher for the Pirates. His players have traditionally performed exceptionally in the classroom with the spring semester of 2020 looking like another strong effort in terms of grade point average.
“It does,” Godwin said. “The guys have done a good job. It’s been different — different for us, different for the players. We’ve done a lot of FaceTime, a lot of Zoom meetings, accountability partners to get us motivated to keep working out and keep doing things. Because at the end of the day, this is going to be over at some point. We don’t know when it’s going to be over but when it’s over, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
Second senior seasons
The NCAA has said it will allow seniors in 2020 to continue their eligibility in 2021. A trio of ECU pitchers will take advantage of that opportunity.
“Cam Colmore, Tyler Smith and Matt Bridges,” Godwin said. “Nick Barber (infielder) is not coming back. He graduated in three years.” …
The process of building relationships with potential Pirate players has continued.
“As Coach (Jeff) Palumbo (associate head coach and recruiting coordinator) said a few weeks ago, it’s easier to get in touch with kids right now than it ever has been because they’re all home,” Godwin said. “We’ve been on the phone, mostly Coach Palumbo, but we’ve had a lot of communication with our incoming guys next year. Coach Palumbo is always talking to kids who are underclassmen. In our sport, you’re recruiting years in advance. It’s juniors, sophomores and freshmen that Coach Palumbo is talking to on the phone. I’ve talked to a couple so recruiting goes on.
“It’s probably been pretty consistent just because they’re not playing as much and we’re able to get hold of them easier than we ever have been.”
Potential for improvement
The contention that ECU would have improved during 2020 is supported by the fact that right-hander Gavin Williams had pitched very sparingly. Williams’ fast ball hit 100 miles per hour in the NCAA regional in Greenville last season.
“He pitched three innings,” Godwin said. “He threw an inning against High Point and he threw two innings at Charlotte. He never started. He was going to start the Friday against Columbia (just before the season was canceled) on the mound in a pitch count situation. … He has a big-time fast ball. He pitched some crucial games for us.
“He started the championship game of the regional last year against Campbell. Not many can say they started a regional championship here in front of 6,000 so Gavin was getting healthy. Nothing was wrong with his arm. It was the finger that he broke in the preseason. We had to get that healed before he could pitch so we were looking forward to it but you can see what happened. You have a pandemic and your season gets canceled. He throws three innings.”
Two likely to be drafted
Williams and Alec Burleson figure to be selected in a reduced Major League Baseball draft next month. Burleson was a solid left-handed pitcher in addition to toting a productive bat as an every day player.
“Him (Williams) and Alec Burleson most likely will be drafted,” Godwin said. “They have most likely played their last games in an East Carolina uniform. People I’m sure are devastated and we’re the ones who coach them and recruit them so we love spending time with them, but we want what’s best for them. They’ll go on and be great professional players if the draft takes them, which I think they will.
” … The smallest number of rounds that has been projected has been five rounds. We feel pretty confident with what we’ve been told by different organizations that both those guys will go in the top five rounds.
Does the coach anticipate that Jake Kuchmaner (left-handed pitcher) will be back?
“Yes,” Godwin said.
Schedule not in stone
ECU’s schedule for 2021 could be impacted by potential limitations for fall sports, specifically football.
“Our schedule is set but we’ve got to get through this and get kids back on campus,” Godwin said. “Schools need football. Once all that’s set in stone, then we’ll have a better idea of what our schedule will actually be.”
If football revenue is affected, there could be a trickle-down effect for other sports.
“I’m really not interested in playing the what if game until they say they can’t play football then we’re going to go on as planned, just like our kids are planning to be back here in the fall on campus and take classes on campus,” Godwin said. “Will there be some different ways that are implemented from a social distancing aspect? I’m sure.”
Many elements of society have been shut down since mid-March in the attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“To start with, you just didn’t know what was happening,” Godwin said. “You just know the season’s canceled. You take a few steps back and you’re a little bit confused on how you handle it. Our coaching staff has pretty much handled it. We’ve worked pretty much every day of the week. The weekends have been different. We’re not playing games. We’re not watching video, we’re not getting together scouting reports so we do have some more free time on the weekends.
” … The thing that people don’t understand is that you’ve still got a team and they’re still part of ECU baseball. We have FaceTimed our guys and, like I said, Zoom meetings and really worked on the mental game and making sure guys are staying sharp because … at some point in time it’s going to be over. This thing’s going to be over and we’re going to go back.
“I think the guys that have taken advantage of this will be in front of players that have maybe taken some time off.”
Instead of getting ready for a series finale this Saturday at USF, Godwin has more free time.
“I’ve had some different things going on in my life,” Godwin said. “My grandmother (Godwin’s mother’s mother) passed away so I’ve gone to Snow Hill a couple of times. I’ve probably worked out more than I would at this time of the year. Talked more on the phone. Taken more walks around the neighborhood than I ever have before. Just different things.
“Watched some shows on Netflix like everybody else has.”
On the other side of the shutdown
As things reopen, some elements of life will no longer be taken for granted.
“The good will just be on the other side,” Godwin said. “It will make us appreciate when we’re able to hug people and go to church and go to sporting events. The thing that’s been tough on me is no sports on TV.
“The Last Dance (inside look at the Chicago Bulls in the Michael Jordan era) has been awesome because everybody’s tuned in. Of course, I grew up a huge Michael Jordan fan. He’s older than me but it was in my era. I wanted to be like Michael Jordan. Like the commercial, wanted to be like Mike.
“My dad (Lewis Godwin, Greene Central) was a high school basketball coach. The competitive spirit that Michael Jordan has excites me. More athletes and just more people in life need to have more of a mentality like Michael Jordan. I think that’s where society has fell short. They don’t like people competing. It wouldn’t matter what Michael Jordan wanted to do, he would compete at it and he would be successful at it.”
Concern for Dad
Godwin has been concerned about his dad during the pandemic.
“He’s doing good,” Godwin said. “He’s a high-risk guy so he needs to stay in more, which frustrates him. You get to be 75 years old, you kind of want to do what you want to do, but he’s trying to be careful and not be out in public that much other than going to the grocery store. … He did play golf last week so that was actually good for him. I encourage him to do that because I think it’s good for him to be out and play golf and do something that he likes.”
Godwin was asked what he was looking forward to as life, hopefully, returns to normal.
“Just our guys getting on campus,” said the Pirates coach. “That’s been the biggest adjustment. People talk about the games being canceled. I know that’s tough for the fans, but for us and our coaching staff, human interaction with our players and watching guys grow as a baseball player and a person. That’s been the toughest thing for me.”