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View from the 'ville
Friday, February 20, 2009

By Al Myatt

It's Maness vs. Monmouth in opener

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Coffee and hot chocolate ought to be brisk sellers as East Carolina opens its 2009 baseball season at 3 p.m. this afternoon at Clark-LeClair Stadium against Monmouth.

Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-40's when sophomore right-hander Seth Maness delivers the first pitch with the wind chill factor making it feel like the upper 30's.

Maness was 9-2 as a freshman with a 3.27 earned run average and notched 81 strikeouts with just 20 walks in 98 1/3 innings pitched. The Southern Pines Pinecrest product was named Conference USA preseason pitcher of the year and was selected to five preseason All-America teams.

Maness was a first-team All C-USA choice last season and was the league's freshman of the year.

Pirate coach Billy Godwin plans to start right-hander Chris Heston, a transfer from Seminole Community College, in the second game of the series at 2 p.m. on Saturday, and Mike Anderson, who redshirted during the 2008 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, gets the nod on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Consistency from the pitching staff will be a vital factor as the Pirates seek their tenth berth in the NCAA Tournament in the last 11 seasons.

"I think the number one question with any program heading into the start of a season is pitching," Godwin said. "I feel good about the pitchers we return, especially the four freshmen from last year, who combined for 18 wins.

"Our pitching staff is very talented, but if there is a concern that I have right now, it would be their youth and inexperience. If we can get three or four of our freshman to step up the way Seth Maness, Sthil Sowers, Seth Simmons and Brad Mincey did last year, it could be a very special season for this club."

Very special in Pirate terms involves the longtime program goal of reaching the College World Series in Omaha. Among the key losses from the 2008 team that went 42-21 and reached the final of the Conway, SC, regional are center fielder Harrison Eldridge, who hit a team high .352, and catcher Corey Kemp who launched a team-best 18 home runs.

"You don't ever replace the guys you lose," Godwin said. "I remember a couple of years ago people asking me the same thing about Jake Smith and Adam Witter in replacing their power. Well, the following year we led Conference USA in home runs and were in the top two in almost every offensive category.

"Guys step up and emerge out of the shadows. Who is it going to be this year? We really don't know, but we have guys who are poised to step in and show what they can do. You can't replace good players. You will miss them, but you just roll guys over and prepare them to step in and fill the void. This year we think Trent Ashcraft, Jared Avchen, Trent Whitehead, Zach Wright and Bobby Fowler are the guys that can step in everyday."

Ashcraft is projected to take over in center field and Avchen, another transfer from Seminole Community College, appears to be Kemp's successor behind the plate.

The infield is experienced with Brandon Henderson at first base, Ryan Wood at second, Dustin Harrington at shortstop and Drew Schieber at third. Stephen Batts, a preseason All-Conference USA selection with a .330 career average, will be in left field. Left-handed swinging Kyle Roller, who has 23 career homers, is slated for designated hitter duty.

"The depth that we have in our positional players is our biggest strength," Godwin said. "We have a solid corps of guys returning that have put up proven numbers year in and year out. ... Overall, the depth of our position players and experience will go a long way in helping this club reach its potential."

Last season, the Pirates started slowly. ECU dropped two of three in the season opening series at then-No. 2 South Carolina and lost a midweek contest at Elon. The Pirates fell in the opener of a three-game set with the same Monmouth program that's in Greenville this weekend to stand at an inauspicious 1-4.

ECU responded to the early adversity with a 13-game winning streak to get the season turned around.

The Pirates have No. 13 Olklahoma State and No. 12 UCLA at home before getting into C-USA play, which should give Godwin's club the opportunity to move up frpm their current No. 27 spot in the NCBWA poll.

"Once again we have been able to put together another great schedule," said Godwin. "Our 35 home games will allow our fans to see some of the top college baseball programs both regionally and nationally. Our players came to ECU to play on a national stage, and with the tough competition in Conference USA and our non-conference schedule, they will be able to do just that on a weekly basis.

"Our goals and standards for the program are high, and in order to be the best you have to play the best teams year in and year out. If you look at this year's schedule, we have tackled that challenge with a tough non-conference slate. We have nationally-ranked Oklahoma State in our LeClair Classic along with perennial NCAA participant St. John's and College of Charleston. Preseason Top 25 UCLA will be coming in on a return trip from two years ago and we have a tough three-game series against Louisiana-Lafayette in early May.

"We have all those games in addition to playing the great level of competition that we have instate with North Carolina, N.C. State, UNC-Wilmington and Elon, all NCAA Regional teams over the past few years. Our league schedule is once again packed with tough competition in Rice, Southern Miss, Houston and Tulane, who were all regional teams last year to go along with UCF, UAB, Marshall and Memphis. I think you will be hard pressed to look anywhere in the country and find a better schedule than ours."

The Pirates appear capable of measuring up to their challenging schedule and figure to be in the thick of things as cold conditions in February yield to warmer days this spring.

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02/20/2009 02:38:19 AM


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