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Pirate Notebook Special: Part Three of Three Parts


Bonesville's Denny O'Brien recently conducted a one-on-one interview with Keith LeClair, East Carolina's extraordinarily successful head baseball coach. Transcript appears below.

[ Keith LeClair Photo: ECU SID ]

LeClair Talks About Life, Religion and Omaha


Editor's Note: This Q&A with Keith LeClair is the third and final contribution in a three-part feature focusing on East Carolina's baseball coach. Click the following links to view each part in the series:
1. Pirate Notebook No. 50
2. Pirate Notebook No. 51
3. Q&A with Keith LeClair

Q & A With Keith LeClair:

Keith LeClair talks about life, religion, and Omaha in this exclusive.

Q: What do you think the move to Conference USA does for this program?

A: It gives us a lot more exposure on a national level. We'll now be playing in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. So, we'll really be able to get our name out there in different parts of the country. We'll have so much more recognition with this conference as a whole. You have Tulane that is ranked anywhere from third to fifth in the preseason polls. And you also have Houston that is a top 30 team. That obviously helps us. Now, we're getting exposure with a conference as a whole. Our program got exposure in the CAA, but not with the league as a whole.

Q: Going into the season, pitching is obviously a strength. Even though the pitching staff was solid last season, you have to expect significant improvement with another year of experience.

A: Yeah, it's pretty much the same staff that we had last year. We didn't lose any significant innings off that staff. And one thing that I think is going to help our staff this year, is that we will be a lot better defensively than we were a year ago. Last year we were offensive oriented, and had an offensive lineup which hurt us defensively. This year, we will have people back in their natural positions, which will help us defensively, which in turn will help them as a staff.

Q: So, even though you lose three starters in the infield, you think you'll be better defensively?

A: Yeah, because now we have Bryant Ward back at third. I think he is one of the premier third basemen in the country defensively, and he even led our team last year in hitting. He was never comfortable at second base. He's back where he is a lot more comfortable, and a lot more confident. At short stop, we will have Luke Cherry, who is an outstanding defensive player. Jed Sorensen will play second, and he is a very good defensive player. Darryl Lawhorn and Ryan Norwood will both play as freshmen at first base. Then, we have Warren Gaspar in center; Ryan Jones in right; Ben Sanderson in left; Clayton McCullough behind the plate. We can put eight guys on the field that are all really good defensively. Defense will be an important part of our success.

Q:Speaking of Warren Gaspar, he really came into his own toward the end of the year. He seemed like the catalyst for that lineup during the Regionals.

A: He was, and I expect that he will be more mature this year. He is a lot more confident and has a better understanding of his game. The thing that he has to be careful about, though, is trying to do too much in our offense.

Our offense has changed dramatically from last year to this year. Last year, we were a power-hitting team, but this year we'll have a much different type of offense.

Q: Will you take more of a National League approach on offense?

A: We'll have to be more of a situational hitting team. We're going to have to hit-and-run, bunt. We're going to have to execute. I think these guys know that that's going to be very important.

Q: Is there a particular area that has surprised you at this stage in practice, an area in which you are much better than you thought you would be?

A: I would have to say offensively. I think we are better than I thought we would be. Still, we've yet to prove ourselves in competition, so I think we have to be very careful at this stage. There are questions that we have offensively that will be answered in time.

Also, I think our pitching depth has improved since last year. We had depth last year, but what I think has happened is the guys that didn't get significant innings last year have improved, which makes our depth even greater.

Q: Since you've been here, there has been a huge boost in fan enthusiasm. It has to feel good that as the program has progressed, so has fan interest.

A: When you look at the programs across the country that year in, year out are successful, they all have great fan attendance. I think that has been a big part of our success here. I really think that it has elevated our program to the point where it helps our players on the field.

Q: Obviously that huge influx of enthusiasm has led to the campaign to build the new stadium. What has that done for you when you go out to recruit?

A: Well, that's something that really can't impact recruiting until it is built. You know, we can talk about it all we want, but an 18-year old kid wants to actually see it. Though I think it has helped spark interest within the program, I don't think any program has really been helped until the facility is in place. When that happens, I think that's when you'll see even more improvement in our program. We're halfway there in our financial campaign, but we need to finish the deal.

Q: Because you were so close to reaching Omaha last year, do you think there is an even greater focus to get there this year?

A: I think last year gave our guys an understanding of where they're at, in that we are very, very close. Last year, we were one pitch, one out from going. But, I don't think that has increased our focus. Since I've been here, that has been our goal every year.

I don't think that there was a single guy on our team last year that was satisfied with just competing in the Super Regional. They understand that the ultimate goal from day one is to get to Omaha.

Q: So, what do you think is the missing link to getting to Omaha?

A: You know, I think you have to catch a break. It seems that we haven't quite yet caught that break. On the same token, though, you have to make your own breaks, and we haven't quite gotten over that hump of making the big pitch, or getting the big hit, or making that big play when we have to. It basically comes down to performing.

Playing at home is also an important part of it. It will be important this year to host the Regionals, to host the Super Regionals. Seven of the eight teams last year in the College World Series hosted the Super Regionals. That is important year in, and year out.

Q: Now that you guys have gone a step further in the NCAA tournament, do you think that will be a huge confidence booster in the NCAAs this year?

A: Without question. Expectations breed expectations. This year, we expect to get back there, and we expect to win. It certainly helps these players to understand where they're at, what we're trying to do, and how we're going to get there. Our program hasn't changed over the last three years -- we've done the same thing. If these kids buy into what we are doing, and I think they do, then we have a great chance of getting back to the Regionals, and the Super Regionals.

Q: So, would it be safe to say that getting back to the Super Regionals isn't a goal, it's an expectation with this program?

A: No question. Obviously, we've already demanded a lot, and expected a lot. What has taken place here is that we expect to get to Omaha. We expect to host a Super Regional. Last year we did that, but we just fell a little bit short.

Q: Obviously, leadership will be important in the quest for Omaha. Have you seen a leader emerge thus far in practice?

A: I think that that is generally defined as the season progresses. The identity of a team is never known until you lose a couple of games and face adversity. Bryant Ward, Clayton McCullough, and Warren Gaspar are seniors that have been in the program. Hopefully, they will emerge when that adversity comes. When you play 56 games, you're going to see some days when you don't play well. It's in those games when a team defines itself.

Q: How does the mental approach differ in baseball than in other college sports?

A: Mentally, it's a marathon, not a sprint. It's a long, methodical process. You can't get too high, or too low. Football is totally different, because every week, your season is on the line. Football season is a sprint. Our season is a marathon that lasts 25 weeks. You have to keep your emotions on an even playing field. You have to be healthy, too. That's where depth comes into play. If you aren't deep, and you have an injury or two, you can play yourself into a hole really quick.

Q: When you look back over to your career to date, what do you take pride in as your greatest accomplishment.

A: I take great pride in the fact that in the ten years that I've been a head coach, I think I've had a consistent career. We've been to seven regionals. I say we, because it's not about me. It's about the players and coaches that have worked together with a common goal to be successful. I take great pride that in ten years, we haven't had a lot of valleys. I feel like we've always been pushing forward. I think that knowing that what we do in our program works, and when teams win, a program builds consistency. I think our program has worked over the years.

I take a lot of pride in the fact that I've gotten to work with so many great kids, and I haven't had a lot of problems in ten years. Knowing day in and day out that the kids have gone out and worked hard to make this program work gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Q: What does your coaching staff bring to the program?

A: They have great knowledge for the game. They are guys that have played at the collegiate level, as well as the professional level. They've been there, and they understand the game. They bring that knowledge and how to achieve greatness to the players.

Some head coaches can be control freaks, but I've never been like that. I give coach McMullan control of the hitters. I give coach Eason control of the pitchers. A great deal of the credit to our success goes to our assistant coaches.

Q: You've been really open about your faith. Do you see this as your opportunity to be a good witness?

A: Without a doubt. Sometimes we don't exercise our faith like we should, until our backs are against the wall, and we have to surrender. I've been through that the last seven months. I feel that the Lord has given me this time to witness and to help others. I think people are more open, and have open ears when somebody is going through trials and tribulations in life, versus somebody that is experiencing great success.

Q: Do you think the Lord has you on a mission for him?

A: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. He's shown me how this is a time to glorify him. And I believe that I will defeat this. I believe that I will persevere. I believe one day that I will hit fungos and throw BP, and coach like I did before this happened. I feel like, right now, he wants me to show others how important he is in my life and how important the can be to them if they will just be open to him and receive him. This has really been a rewarding time. It hasn't been miserable seven months. I have more peace than I've ever had in my life.

Q: As you talk to people, do you see them becoming more receptive to what you're saying?

A: Without question. People always want to know what's behind a man. People look to others sometimes to have that strength to hold on to. I think sometimes that we need people to help nurture our relationships with Christ. I think that's why Christ instructed us to be witnesses, both in good times, and in times of trials and tribulations. I really believe that he gives us a platform.

Q: Everybody goes through trials and tribulations in life. I know you've got to be wondering how people make it through those times without faith.

A: I don't know. I've often wondered how in the world my family would make it through this without him. I always pray for people that don't know him, that they'll receive him. That's a great point my wife and I always talk about, because even if you don't win here on earth, you can have eternal life.

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02/23/2007 01:45:45 AM

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