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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

By Bethany Bradsher

ECU baseball looks past bumps along the road

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

As I spoke about Keith LeClair Tuesday morning to a roomful of high school athletic directors in Wilmington, I was struck by the depth of connection people there felt with the East Carolina baseball program, bonds forged through trials like LeClair’s illness and triumphs like the 2009 NCAA Regional victory in Clark-LeClair Stadium.

Keith’s story, of course, resonates with people of all backgrounds, even those with no particular connection to East Carolina or baseball. When I’m asked to speak about his life, I make sure to honor Keith’s desire that his faith through his ALS valley takes precedence over anything he ever accomplished on the diamond.

But no observer of Pirate baseball can deny that the program underwent a tectonic shift when LeClair took over in the mid-‘90s. His first squad, in 1998, finished  just over .500, but each of his next four seasons ended with more than 40 wins and an NCAA Regional invitation. In 2001 the Diamond Bucs won that regional and went on to face Tennessee in the Super Regional for the right to play at the College World Series.

When LeClair’s illness forced him to step down, Randy Mazey and then Billy Godwin built on that expectation for excellence. In fact, the Pirates haven’t put together a losing season since before LeClair arrived in Greenville. The change has come gradually, but what the Pirate Nation enjoys now during baseball season is the confidence that their team will always contend, that every season is a boundless opportunity for a team with talent and confidence.

Steadfast hope doesn’t guarantee trips to the postseason, of course, and East Carolina has several losses this season that have showed the shakiness of its youth. Last night the Pirates traveled to Chapel Hill for their first meeting with North Carolina since the Super Regional in 2009. They entered the seventh inning tied 3-3, but then the Pirate fielders committed five errors to give the Tar Heels a 5-3 victory (Box Score).

The loss dropped ECU to 22-11 overall, with the loss side of the ledger reflecting a handful of winnable games that slipped away due to miscues. But even with those pitfalls, anything seems possible with this team, with two-thirds of the Conference USA schedule still ahead.

That encapsulates the main difference between the baseball Pirates of old and the ones who take the field in purple today. Every year since Keith LeClair took over at the tender age of 30, East Carolina's baseball program has been characterized by squads that seem capable of winning at any time. Against the 5th-ranked Tar Heels (30-5), the Pirates knew they were challenging an outstanding team on its home diamond — but they took the field with the belief that a victory was within reach.

They’ll get another crack at North Carolina this season, at Clark-LeClair Stadium on April 27. In the meantime, the pressing engagements are against C-USA foes – first a home series against Central Florida, then a visit to Houston, followed by a home series against Southern Miss. The league gauntlet will wrap up with road to Marshall and Tulane. Each series could lead the Pirates a little closer to their goal of getting a crack at the postseason.

Losses like Tuesday night’s are disappointing, to be sure, but it’s exciting to back a team that forever seems on the cusp of the next big win. Even Pirate basketball fans started to grasp that a little this winter, as Jeff Lebo led his new team to its first winning record in 14 years and fans started to envision ECU in the place of VCU or Richmond, mid-majors knocking on the Final Four door and immeasurably elevating their reputation.

It’s a good time to be a Pirate, because hope seems to be dominating the sports landscape. Godwin does have his hands full trying to plug the holes and assemble the best lineup, but he and the fans in the Jungle have all adopted the confidence that comes from watching a team perform at a high level  for many years. They believe in this team, and there’s plenty of season left for the Pirates to channel that faith into runs, double plays and shutouts.

This ECU squad is the beneficiary of the winning history that got a jolt of momentum under Keith LeClair, but it can add its own distinct chapter by digging deep and taking care of every detail that will move it a step closer to becoming the first Pirate team to win both the Regional and Super Regional en route to the ultimate goal — Omaha.

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher Archives

04/13/2011 05:11 AM

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