East Carolina is in a familiar position as regional host as the Pirates begin NCAA Tournament play today at noon against Norfolk State. ECU alumnus and coach Clif Godwin has been preparing his 41-15 team, the No. 13 national seed, for the event, but potential disruptive weather is not a factor within his control.
“We’re excited to be hosting our third straight regional,” Godwin said late Thursday morning. “Our guys are excited. Just got done with practice. Part of it was outside. Part of it was inside. Before the media asks me about the weather, I don’t care about the weather, I can’t control the weather. Don’t want to talk about the weather.
“Every regional that has been here has not been affected by weather like some people want to say it is. We’ll be ready to go (Friday), whenever we’re allowed to play with the weather.
“We’re facing a great opponent in Norfolk State.”
Deflating the hype
The Pirates have navigated their way through the restrictions of COVID to win the American Athletic Conference regular-season championship and are the top seeds for the Greenville regional.
“I’ve said this a lot recently, but this team is as battle-tested as any team we’ve ever had,” Godwin said. “Going back to before conference started, our guys had to go through injuries. Somebody asked me (Wednesday), ‘Hey, your team didn’t have any injuries this year.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, I guess I missed (Lane) Hoover being out for six weeks with a shattered face.
“Gavin (Williams) missed time. (Carson) Whisenhunt missed time. There’s been a ton of guys who missed time. So we maneuvered through that. Then we get to conference and we’re the best team by far on paper. For our guys to have to play four games in three days (AAC weekend series) and 36 innings, to be able to maneuver through that was really special.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a team here that is more battle-tested so when you say, ‘hype,’ that’s what East Carolina is. When you play baseball here, there’s pressure. There’s hype. There’s all that stuff, but we haven’t been on social media since Tuesday at nine o’clock. We don’t see the hype now.”
ECU plans to start freshman left-hander Carson Whisenhunt (6-1, 3.52 ERA) against the Spartans (25-26), who hosted and won the MEAC Tournament to earn an NCAA berth.
Godwin was asked if Whisenhunt expected to open the regional.
“I don’t think anybody was expecting until the coaches tell them who’s pitching,” Godwin said. “Gavin would have went game one if we had told him to. Kuch (Jake Kuchmaner) or Smitty (Tyler Smith) or whoever it is. It’s not a big deal. Carson’s is just going to take the ball and treat it like any other start.”
Godwin feels like switch-hitting outfielder Bryson Worrell will be able to contribute in the postseason.
“We’re in a good spot,” Godwin said. “I think our guys are as healthy as we can be. Bryson is still a little dinged up from going into the wall. I’d bet my house that he’d be able to play (Friday) in some capacity. He doesn’t feel great but he knows that he wants to play. (Zac) Womack (trainer) has done an unbelievable job and also our doctors, just getting him to feel better throughout the week.”
One impressive stat about the Spartans is 107 stolen bases in 145 attempts. In comparison, the Pirates have 56 steals in 84 tries.
“I haven’t scouted them at all yet,” Godwin said. “I’m going to look at some stuff this afternoon. I know the guy has some really good numbers that we are going to face. They stole a lot of bases. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t a quality opponent. I’ll look more in depth at the pitching this afternoon and (Friday) morning early, but I know they’re a great team.”
Discussion on starter
A lefty like Whisenhunt will be looking at runners on first and may be able to limit their leads. Going with Whisenhunt over Williams, the Friday night starter during the regular season, was a move with the remainder of the regional in mind. If the Pirates win the opener, they would play the Charlotte-Maryland winner on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“I don’t think you guys should make it bigger than what it is,” Godwin said of giving Whisenhunt the nod. “You put yourself in a position to win the regional. When you host a regional or you go on the road, just like we did in ’15, we knew that Reid Love probably gave us the best chance to beat Miami. Now, we lost game one against Columbia so he had to pitch against FIU. We ended up losing that game, but still that put us in the best chance to possibly win the regional. That’s the discussions that we have had as a coaching staff.”
ECU is 2-4 in first games of its last six regionals. The Pirates are 2-1 under Cliff Godwin in regional openers.
“It’s easier if you win,” Godwin said. “In ’19 we lost (to Quinnipiac) and still won the regional. … I don’t really care. As long as we win the regional, I don’t give a damn if we win the first one or lose the first one, as long as we win the regional. Excuse me, but we’ll put our best foot forward tomorrow and we’ll go from there.”
Attendance restrictions have been reduced and that should mean an electric atmosphere at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
“It means the world to me because I can’t imagine hosting a regional and not being at full capacity,” Godwin said. “For the younger guys who haven’t experienced this, it’s pretty cool. To be able to do it three years in a row, I want them to enjoy it. I want them to take it in. I always tell this story. When Turner (Brown) was the shortstop in ’19 and Ryder (Giles) was our third baseman, Turner, they ran on the field. He told him, ‘Look around, take this in, This doesn’t happen everywhere.’ And it doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s a special place. Pirate Nation is awesome. When Clark-LeClair is packed and the jungle is rocking, it’s just as loud as any place I’ve ever coached.”
Weather in 2018
Weather played havoc with the Greenville regional schedule in 2018. Jake Agnos was cruising and the Pirates were leading 5-0 when UNC-Wilmington erupted for nine runs in the fifth inning after an extended weather delay. The Seahawks dealt ECU a 9-7 season-ending loss.
“Agnos started against UNCW and Agnos, obviously, had a professional career in front of him,” Godwin said. “Just as I protect Gavin when he walks in the door and goes, ‘Hey, I got an inning today,’ after he’s started two days ago. That’s our coaches’ (responsibility) to put our guys in the best situation to have long-lasting careers in professional baseball.
“You can’t control the weather. Every team has to deal with the same thing. It’s not like we get affected more by the weather than another team. It is what it is. Yeah, we were up, 3-0, then the weather delay. Then we scored two. We were up 5-0, but we were not going to run Agnos back out there after over an hour and a half delay.”
ECU sophomore second baseman Connor Norby is the AAC Player of the Year. He is hitting .424 with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs, all team highs, in the leadoff spot. He has been eagerly anticipating the most meaningful games of the season.
“I’ve lost some sleep the past few nights, just thinking about it,” Norby said. “It’s special and being able to have that again this year is awesome. I’m excited to be a part of it again. I’m excited for the rest of my teammates that even haven’t seen it, like Jacob Starling and guys like that.
“They get to experience it for the first time because it’s seriously, the best time of the year.”
Norby was named to Collegiate Baseball’s All-America second team on Thursday.
Williams is 10-0 with a 1.32 ERA. He has 108 strikeouts in 68 innings with just 18 walks. He had a dominant performance against Memphis as the Pirates went 3-2 in the AAC Tournament.
“I would assume that everybody feels good,” said the AAC Pitcher of the Year. “I think we have a little chip on our shoulder because we didn’t end the tournament the way we wanted to.”
Williams was named to Collegiate Baseball’s All-America first team on Thursday.