The challenges were just beginning when East Carolina’s 2020 baseball season was cut short due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Despite a continuing battle with the demands of the pandemic in 2021, the Pirates went 44-17 and finished No. 12 in national rankings published by Division I Baseball. ECU went 20-8 in the American Athletic Conference and won the league’s regular-season championship.
But success was an unprecedented ordeal, complicated by a world trying to control the coronavirus. Pirates coach Cliff Godwin and the ECU program were confronted by protocols on a day-to-day basis.
“Just going back to last summer, normally we have our incoming guys coming in and we weren’t able to do that but our guys did a great job with Zoom calls just getting to know one another,” Godwin said. “I thought that was a big piece moving into the fall semester. Going through all the COVID protocols and what Zac Womack (trainer) and really all of us have had to do but Zac being the one that has to manage all of the COVID protocols.
“It’s a lot more work by everybody but people I don’t think from the outside understand how much had to go into this year from last summer until today. It added a lot of strain on a lot of people, our athletic department, our athletic trainers, our coaches. our players. Trying to keep a tight bubble and to be able to take it to the spring and have as good a season as has ever happened in ECU baseball history. That’s a credit to our staff and to our players. To do it in a time when a lot of teams just couldn’t find consistency — it was a really tough year to have consistency.
“Just going through COVID and playing with no fans and going to having fans in a regional was awesome. That was as good of a moment for our team and our fans and our athletic department in two years, just because we were able to have sports and crowds. The regional here, it was the loudest, I think, ever — even louder than ’19, which is pretty awesome.”
COVID caused a series at Houston, scheduled for April 16-18, to be canceled after the Pirates had made the trip to take on the Cougars. ECU was 26-5 prior to the canceled series and 18-12 after the 12-day layoff that resulted.
“I think it was a combination of things,” Godwin said. “(Carson) Whisenhunt, obviously, missed some time after that weekend. Our pitching staff wasn’t the same without him in the rotation. That’s No. 1. No. 2, you’re not playing midweek games so now we have two conference series under our belt when we went into Houston.
“The 4-game weekends really wore on every team, not just us. That’s the thing that is impressive. We won the conference when you had to play four games in three days. That’s really hard to do because when you play a doubleheader, most likely, you’re going to split. That’s the thing. You don’t sweep doubleheaders. It’s not just us. Percentages say that in all of baseball, not just college, but major league as well
“I don’t think that (missing the Houston series) is something that slowed us down. It was just an obstacle that COVID threw at us and we had to maneuver through it.”
Interest from LSU
Godwin was a candidate for the coaching vacancy at LSU, where he was an assistant coach from 2006 to 2008.
“Yes, LSU was interested in me,” Godwin said. “They did not offer me the job. I did interview, but I never had a decision to make.”
Godwin was Coach of the Year in the AAC for the third time in 2021.
“It’s awesome for our program that a place like LSU would even consider me as a head coach just because of what we’ve done here, but all the credit goes to our players, our coaching staff just continuing to be consistent in what we do on and off the field,” Godwin said. “That’s why I get interest because of what we have done as a group. I hope people understand that. It’s the same thing with Coach of the Year. You have that because you have a great program. You have a great team. It’s a team award. It’s not an individual award.”
Right-hander Gavin Williams was Pitcher of the Year in the AAC and second baseman Connor Norby was the league’s Player of the Year.
Williams was 10-1 with a 1.88 earned run average. He had 130 strikeouts in 81 and one-third innings with 21 walks.
Norby started all 61 games and hit .415 with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs. He had 15 doubles and stole 18 bases in 22 attempts.
The duo is expected to continue their careers on the professional level.
“I think people are really excited about them,” Godwin said. “I’ve talked to a bunch of crosscheckers and assistant GMs. Coach (Jason) Dietrich (former ECU pitching coach) and Coach (Jeff) Palumbo (associate head coach, recruiting coordinator) have as well. There’s a lot of interest in them.
“They both have a possibility of going in day one, which is the first round (ESPN, Sunday, 7 p.m.), but I think that both of them would definitely go in the top two rounds. That’s a pretty safe bet, but I’m not a professional organization so I’m just giving you my best guess with the educated resources that I have.”
There are also some Pirate recruits who could face decisions after the draft.
“Always,” Godwin said. “There’s always the possibility of that.”
With Dietrich going to Cal State Fullerton to be head coach, the Pirates have promoted Austin Knight to pitching coach.
“We are super excited about Austin taking over as our pitching coach,” Godwin said. “He has worked tirelessly in assisting Coach Dietrich for the past two seasons and has been a huge part of the success we have had on the mound during that time. Austin is a rising star and we are pumped that he is our pitching coach.”
Knight played four years from 2012 to 2015 at Ole Miss, where Godwin was an assistant from 2011-2014.
Dietrich called Knight his “right-hand man” the last two years.
Collegiate summer leagues were on hiatus for the most part in 2020
“Summer leagues are back,” Godwin said. “We’ve got several players out playing summer baseball.”
Godwin is in the midst of several youth camps at ECU for ages six to 13.
The College World Series in Omaha also returned in 2021.
“It’s good when people are excited and want to watch it,” Godwin said. “It’s good for our sport.”
Vaccinations were not required for ECU players.
“Not all of our players,” Godwin said. “The majority of our players were. That’s not my job to force somebody to get vaccinated. My job is to educate them on what the protocols are and them and their family make a decision on how that will affect them.
“Not all of our guys were (vaccinated). The majority were.”
The vaccine issue impacted N.C. State, which was ruled out of the CWS by the NCAA, a win short of the championship series, due to a what the governing body felt was a prohibitive number of positive tests. The Wolfpack’s ouster generated considerable controversy.
“It doesn’t matter what my opinion is in that situation,” Godwin said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation what happened to N.C. State, just because of the way they started (1-8) and the way they ended up. Coach (Elliott) Avent did a helluva job and I texted him that once they had won the Super Regional.
“The route they had to take to get to Omaha is tough as any route anyone has ever had to take. To go to Louisiana Tech as a two seed and then go to Arkansas, the No. 1 team in the country. Pretty impressive.”
The AAC went from 3-game league series to four games in 2021 with no midweek games during the amended conference format.
Godwin wants to return to the old format.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens,” Godwin said. “We have our head coaches meeting in August.”
He also said the Keith LeClair Classic will go back to a 4-team field.
“The only reason it was one team (Appalachian State) this year was because of COVID,” Godwin said. ” … Things definitely will be more normal but there’s still obstacles and hurdles and everything else to jump through with COVID. Depending on if you’re vaccinated or not, it’s not like universities across the country are saying, ‘Hey, it’s not here anymore.’ They’re still doing their due diligence and making us go through certain protocols and stuff.
“It’s not totally back to normal by any means.”
For the sixth-straight year, the ECU baseball program received the AAC Team Academic Award.
“It’s a way of life for our guys,” Godwin said. ” … Seven years ago, when we were hired, ECU baseball had never had a 3.0 team GPA (grade point average). So that was one of our first goals that fall and I can remember we got a 3.05 in the fall of 2014 and the coaching staff was high fiving.”
ECU’s team GPA was 3.69 on a 4.0 scale for the spring semester of 2021.
“Now, for the past four years, we’ve had 3.41 or higher,” Godwin said. “That’s unheard of. I don’t know if there is a ranking system of GPAs, but I would put us definitely in the top three, if not No. 1 in the country, just knowing from other places I’ve coached what team GPAs are. Our guys have done a tremendous job with that.”
It’s an exciting time for ECU baseball. We’ve hosted three regionals in a row. It’s never been done at ECU. What we’ve done here, I think it’s important for people to celebrate it because there’s a lot of teams that wish they could be doing what we have done at the consistent level.
“Our job is as players and coaches is to make sure that we don’t become complacent.”
Omaha, the lifestyle
ECU has the most appearances in the NCAA Tournament without making the CWS. The Pirates won the NAIA title in 1961.
” … If I’m judged just on if we go to Omaha or not, it’s a sad place because of the men that we’re developing here and what we’re doing here,” Godwin said. “I’m at peace with it. It’s a place that, of course, we want to get to but it’s more of a lifestyle like I said before going into the regional. That’s what Coach (Keith) LeClair cares the most about, the way we’re developing young men. I know he’d be happy about that.”
Godwin said after the Super Regional at Vanderbilt that the Pirates would keep knocking on the door in their goal of getting to Omaha and eventually would knock it down.
“Tim Corbin (Vanderbilt coach) told me that, too,” Godwin said. “I think it took him nine years at Vandy to get to Omaha.”