Although the pending weather is not conducive to baseball, official practice starts Jan. 28 with East Carolina ranked No. 8 in a preseason poll by Collegiate Baseball and No. 12 by DI Baseball.
ECU will start 2022 with a new pitching coach.
“Coach (Jason) Dietrich got the head coaching job at Cal State Fullerton,” said Pirates coach Cliff Godwin. “Great honor for him. Obviously did a really good job for us while he was here. Austin Knight was assisting him with the pitching. So for me, it was a no-brainer to put him into the pitching coaching role because he had worked hand-in-hand with Coach Dietrich, and I’ve known Austin dating back to my days at Ole Miss.
“He was a catcher for me for three years before I became the head coach here, and is super knowledgeable about pitchers, what they need to do to maintain their health from an arm care standpoint, also the development. I mean, he’s done probably even a better job than what I anticipated this past fall with our pitchers and has really helped our pitchers become better. We’ve got some really good, talented freshmen that he’s really worked hard with, and I’m super excited to see him continue to grow and develop.”
Academics remain strong
The Pirates are a true representation of the term, student-athlete. The baseball team had another outstanding semester in the classroom in the fall.
“We received a 3.54 team GPA (grade point average),” Godwin said. “Rebecca Wade (academic coordinator) and our entire coaching staff have just done such a great job, and our players, too. I mean, they’re the ones that are doing the work, but we’ve had a 3.41 team GPA or higher for four-and-a-half years straight. I have to pinch myself to say that out loud, but that’s just a tribute to our guys buying into our culture and really taking care of their academics at a very, very high level.
Godwin, who enters his eighth season as coach at his alma mater, made Academic All-America as a player. The importance of academics is emphasized in recruiting.
“it’s important to me that they get a great education from a great institution like East Carolina University, so it’s something that we talk about,” Godwin said. “Do we recruit all 4.0 students? No, we don’t. We recruit guys that are serious about their academics. What we say in our program, if you’re a 3.5 student, be a 3.5 student. If you’re a 3.25 student, be a 3.25 student. But we want our guys to reach their full potential in the classroom.”
Study halls help reinforce the commitment to academics.
“All freshmen are required to have study hall hours, and then there’s guys that are even upperclassmen that we believe that the structure within study hall just helps them stay focused and execute what they need to execute academically,” Godwin said.
Locker room expansion
Athletic director Jon Gilbert has alluded to an expansion of team facilities for baseball as part of an upcoming fundraising campaign.
“This has been in the works pre-COVID, just COVID slowed everything down,” Godwin said. “It’s just not our locker room. It is for our players and also for our staff. Right now we have one coach that is … His office is in the coaches’ locker room. That’s in the coaches’ locker room. We have coaches that are sharing an office.
“Our players’ locker room is not … There’s not enough space for our guys to be quite honest with you in there. We need to make that bigger. Our athletic training room is very tiny. We need to make that bigger. Equipment room, we can’t even … We’re stacking boxes on top of boxes, and not having room for equipment because we’ve just outgrown the underneath part of Clark-LeClair Stadium. I mean, we’re landlocked from that aspect.
“We’re looking to expand down the third base line, which will also allow our fans to have another feeling of being something like a club level. To what degree, we’re still working through that, but it will be for fans to watch the game and also allow us to have more fans in here when we host regionals and stuff. So get closer to that hopefully 6,000 number so we can even have a better home field advantage, but it’s really just for the players and just expanding down the line.
“It’s giving us more space for our team meeting room, which now we’re having to do a lot of our team meetings in the pitching indoor area because of spacing guys out with COVID. So all those things are just going to help for the student-athlete experience here at ECU for our baseball program, which not because of me, but we’ve earned it for what we’ve done on and off the field for sure.”
The impact of COVID-19 continues in college athletics. Most of the players in the baseball program are vaccinated.
“We have a few guys that are not,” Godwin said. “I would say 90 percent of our guys have had it done.
“Right now, if you’re not vaccinated, you have to test once a week regardless if you’re symptomatic or asymptomatic. And then if you are vaccinated, you do not have to get tested unless you have symptoms.”
Anticipation for the 2022 season is high as a sellout for the upcoming banquet would indicate.
“This is a big get together,” Godwin said. “Sold out for the first time before Christmas, which is crazy when you think about it. Our first year here, I think we had 200 people in all, maybe. Now, we’re going to have closer to 600 people over at the Student Center. I think we sold 38 tables at a corporate level. We’ll have a silent auction. So we’re excited. Got Connor Norby coming back to speak, and also Clayton McCullough, the first base coach for the Dodgers who I played with and who’s one of my best friends. So really excited to get Pirate Nation together and have a great night.”
In addition to national rankings, the Pirates are picked to win the American Athletic Conference. Godwin keeps the projections in perspective.
“It’s a tribute to a lot of great players and a very hardworking coaching staff that has been very consistent over time,” said the ECU coach. “To be honest, like I told our team in one team meeting, is the older players have been a part of championship teams, but the new guys have not.
“You can’t hang your hat on preseason rankings. If you do, you’re going to get beaten. We use the slogan, ‘Believe you’re the best, but work like you’re in last place.’ If our guys do that, we’ll be where we need to be when it comes postseason time. But if not, we will not be where we need to be.”
AAC format reverts
In deference to COVID in 2021, the AAC played four-game weekend series with no midweek nonconference games.
This season, the league will play 3-game series on weekends. Midweek nonconference matchups are back.
“Thank God we don’t have four games in three days,” Godwin said. “Man, that was tough. Tough on our players, tough on our staff. Just a long, long three days for sure. I don’t think people from the outside really realized how well our guys performed over the longevity of the season to be able to win the conference again and host a regional and do all those things.
“It was a grind. I mean, more of a grind than already a long baseball season is. So I really am proud of our guys, but we’re excited to go back to a normal format and have fans in the stands. You forget that we didn’t have a full capacity crowd until the regionals, so we’re just excited to have Clark-LeClair and the Jungle rocking from day one.”
ECU has an impressive group of first-year players.
“We have a really talented freshmen pitching class,” Godwin said. “I would say since I’ve been here, it’s the most-talented group that we’ve had come in at one time. But they’re freshmen, so they’ve got to go out there and do it facing really good hitters. Even when we’re split up in inter-squad (scrimmages), they have shown glimpses at times to be very good.
“So we’re excited about those guys, and want to get those guys out there and give them confidence and spoon feed them, so to speak. Hopefully, every time they step foot out there, they get more confidence and they can continue to execute, whatever their role is, at a high level. We do have some young position players as well that have a shot to play right away. We’ve got a long ways to go before our first game, so we’ll see how everybody continues to develop over this next month.”
Potential weekend starters
ECU opens the season Feb. 18 at home against Bryant. There are a lot of candidates for weekend starting assignments on the mound.
“We tell our pitching staff that we want to have … however many games we have that week, we want to have four or five Friday-night starters,” Godwin said. “I would say right now Carson Whisenhunt, Garrett Saylor, Nick Logusch, Jake Kuchmaner, and Josh Grosz from what they did in the fall would be guys that would be strongly considered to go in any of those roles.
“And if they’re not in those roles to start with, they might be helping us out in the bullpen. Obviously, we have C.J. Mayhue returning in the bullpen and have a lot of confidence in him. We’re still going to be figuring out all those pieces right up until game time. Even at the early stages of the season, you’re still figuring out what role benefits our team, each guy fitting into each role.”