East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin brought seniors Ben Newton, Jake Kuchmaner and Bryson Worrell to the news conference around 2 a.m. Monday after an 11-1 loss to Texas in the deciding game of the Super Regional at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
The contest had been fragmented by almost six hours of weather delays.
“Feel for these guys here, because we wouldn’t be where we are today without these guys,” Godwin said. “Group of leaders that even when they weren’t playing, led our group, and they gave us everything they had, as their team did.”
The Pirates, who finished 46-21, appeared to have little hope of hosting a Super Regional after a 7-3 loss at Cincinnati to open play in the American Athletic Conference on April 1. The setback left ECU just a game over ,500.
“14-13, man,” Godwin said. “Won 20 in a row, won the (AAC) regular season, won as many games as the 2019 team did in the regular season, then won the conference tournament and then won a regional and got a chance to host the first Super Regional on campus.”
The Longhorns were long on talent and tradition. They earned a berth in the College World Series for the 38th time. ECU has yet to make the CWS in 32 NCAA Tournament appearances. Texas rallied from a 7-2 deficit on Saturday to force a deciding third game.
“We weren’t quite good enough,” Godwin said. “(Saturday) was our day to do it, and we let it slip away. We just didn’t play quite good enough. Texas is really good, and for everybody, these young men do it the right way.”
Godwin completed his eighth season as coach at his alma mater, putting a long-awaited trip to Omaha in perspective.
“I don’t care if I don’t ever coach in the College World Series as a head coach,” said Godwin, who went to the CWS as an Ole Miss assistant. “That’s not my job. My job is to develop young men and to make them into better people. Our culture is the reason we survived this year.
“We lost our number one (pitcher Carson Whisenhunt) for the season, and Kuch (Kuchmaner) for two months. Kuch is hurt and Kuch is pitching hurt, and he wanted to do that. Not many teams in the country could lose number one and number two and do what we did.
“And I’m so proud of him and it hurts. It hurts worse. I’ve been in those shoes, when I played my last game in a Super Regional (Kinston, 2002 vs. Tennessee). I just wish I could have done more, but bad stuff happens to good people every single day. They did it the right way and they have nothing to hang their heads about as our team doesn’t. We’re going to keep knocking on the door (to the CWS) until we knock it down.”
Kuchmaner threw the only perfect game in ECU history on March 17, 2019, in a 3-0 win at Maryland.
He pitched the ninth inning of game three against Texas to cap his college career. He has received an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship.
“I guess it’s more just wanting to do it for the guys, wanting to get back out there with them,” Kuchmaner said. “It sucks not being a part of it, but finding a way to be a part of it from the bench or from wherever. You want to be in the fight with the guys. That’s something that I wanted to work myself back into.
Kuchmaner was still dealing with some arm issues.
“It’s painful, but yeah, if I’m going to pitch, I better be able to pitch and not blame that on anything like that,” he said. “So I guess it’s just flipping the switch. It might hurt, but keep going.”
A left-hander with 21 career wins, Kuchmaner was asked about the legacy of the 2022 Pirates.
“For me, it’s passing that on to the next group and for them to realize that it’s about the relationships you have with each other first,” Kuchmaner said. “You’re not going to be a good team on the field unless you trust each other and you spend time with each other. So hopefully that gets passed down and continued on for the years to come.”
Newton joined the ECU program in 2020 from Northeastern Junior College and started 50 games in 2022, filling a void at catcher.
“The acclimation wasn’t easy at first, but when you look at it now it’s worth every blood, sweat and tear,” Newton said. “It’s a great university. It’s a great baseball culture. It’s a great crowd. It’s everything you want out of college baseball at ECU. Just looking back at this year, what we were able to do, it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had on the baseball field this year.
“Even in moments where there was struggle, this group, we really came together this year. It was a really fun team to be a part of. Each individual had moments this season that helped us get here. To host a Super Regional at home, I’m just extremely proud of this group.”
The start of game three was delayed 66 minutes from a 4 p.m. start to 5:06. After Texas had taken a 4-0 lead in 19 minutes of play, the contest was halted for almost five hours.
During the regular season, if potentially bad weather was in the forecast, the start time was adjusted so that the game could be played. That option was not used by the NCAA. The first two games were played at noon without weather issues.
Worrell, who hit six home runs in seven NCAA Tournament games, did not feel that the delays determined the outcome. Texas scored four runs in the first inning and added five more in the second.
“I don’t think it really had a big effect on the game,” said the ECU center fielder. “They came out and punched us in the mouth to start with. They did that again as soon as we came back from the rain delay. We didn’t really get it offensively pretty much the whole day. So I don’t think the rain delay really had any effect on how we came out and played. I think we still were ready to play when we came out,”
The Longhorns didn’t relinquish momentum from the last three innings of Saturday’s game.
“Looking back at the season, we had a great season, got to host the Super Regional here on campus, as coach said, for the first time ever,” Worrell said “Obviously not the result we wanted today. This wasn’t our day.”
Attendance on Friday (5,723) and Saturday (5,807) set stadium records. ECU fans were actively supportive.
“Having that crowd in the game, no matter what the score is, no matter if rain delay, having that crowd there to always support us throughout any situation, it’s an awesome feeling,” Worrell said..
“This Super Regional crowd was unbelievable,” said the Pirates coach. “Our fans, and I’ve said this before, it was deafening on the field yesterday and on Friday, and I just thank Pirate Nation for everything they gave us. Man, it was unbelievable. The fact that so many alums and I told Eric Bakich and Nick Schnabel and Chad Tracy and (Jeremy) Schumacher in my office and Kevin O’Sullivan, during the rain delay, I was like, even if we don’t win, man, just so many people came back.
“So many of the coach LeClaire tree, and even before we’re here and if nothing else, the relationships that we have in that tree is pretty special. I just appreciate my family here at East Carolina because it is special. Pirate Nation was awesome. The people that stayed here, we’re getting beat 11-1, still giving purple and gold chants. It’s not many places in the country can say that, so really special.”
The Longhorns cited the crowd factor as well.
“That environment was crazy,” said Texas first baseman Ivan Melendez, who hit his 32nd home run of the season in the first inning Sunday. “They’re getting after us, the moment we stepped in the ballpark. We were warming up, they’re getting after us and we just had to stay locked in. … They were trying to sidetrack us, but you know, it’s part of the game. It’s just the environment. It just comes with the territory. It was fun.”
Game three winning pitcher Tristan Stevens appreciated the environment.
“It was pretty impressive to see the crowd, even when they were down a handful of runs, that they’re into it,” Stevens said. “Yeah. It was definitely a fun atmosphere to be in and that’s a good ball club and this fan base that’s definitely behind them. It’s definitely cool to witness.”
Longhorns coach David Pierce added his thoughts.
“I’ve played in front of a lot of big crowds,” Pierce said. “I’ve coached in front of a lot of big crowds. A lot of hostile crowds. I really was impressed with just how they hung on every pitch and how they were behind that team. Kuchmaner was there at the end, and they’re still there rooting for him.”
‘Only God knows’
The road to Omaha ran through Greenville.
“This is the closest that we’ve ever been to punching our ticket, for sure,” Godwin said. “To be at home and I don’t know why, only God knows why. And look, I’m not going to question Him because He’s been with me this year and you guys don’t know half the stuff that went on behind the scenes, some personally, some professionally.
“And just the way these guys came together was special.
“I’ll pick on Aaron Fitt and Kenny Rogers (college baseball writers). We don’t have a chance. We don’t have any professional prospects. We just got a bunch of grinders. Texas is full of a bunch of first round draft picks, I’m sure. They’re so much more talented, but I’ll tell you what, they had all they wanted here in Greenville, especially the first two days. We just didn’t have enough to get them yesterday.
“But like I said, last year when we lost at Vandy, if I don’t ever coach in the College World Series, as the head coach, I’m okay with that. I don’t need that for my ego. Some people need that for their ego. I don’t. The good Lord put me on this planet to be more than just a coach that has accolades. Because when we leave this place, you ain’t taking those rings in those championships with you.
” … We’ve got a lot of guys that I feel like are on our roster that can help us continue to move forward and some incoming guys as well to help us. It’s pretty remarkable what Coach (Austin) Knight and the pitchers did this year with really no rotation and to be where we are right now, so excited, but we need to get better to get where we want to go. We’re doing it the right way. As I said, last year, we’re doing all the right things. I think it took Tim Corbin (Vanderbilt coach) nine years. Going into my ninth season next year, so hopefully that’s the magic trick. Once you knock it down, it’s a lot, it’s not easy, but it’s easier. And a lot of people talk about that.”
Pierce expresses respect
The Texas coach credited the challenge that the Pirates presented.
“They were a very good hitting team,” Pierce said. “And I’ll say this, this place, I’m so proud of Cliff. As an older coach now and watching a guy like Cliff build a program and the respect for this community, for this team, very impressed, very impressed with Cliff and staff.”