NEWS, NOTES &
The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, April 13,
By Bethany Bradsher
ECU baseball looks past bumps
along the road
The East Carolina
propensity for winning
has been a constant
since the tenure of the
Pirates' iconic late
coach, Keith LeClair.
(ECU SID file image)
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
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
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.
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04/13/2011 05:11 AM