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Pirate Notebook No. 68
Monday, May 20, 2002

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Pirates navigate season of timeless lessons


Team for the ages

The 2002 East Carolina baseball team won't go down as the best in school history. That much is evident in the Pirate's overall record.

But when the season does come to a close — whether it is this week in Kinston or next month in Omaha — this year's Diamond Bucs will go down as a resilient and courageous bunch extraordinaire.

Losing five sluggers would be difficult for any program to overcome. Replacing four steady fielders is by no means a cinch, either. Yet those are just a couple of the more common hurdles this team had to leap.

But there was nothing common about this season — nothing routine about the adversity this team faced.

Still, somehow, the Pirates took a business-as-usual approach to the season. They never offered excuses. They never complained.

Who could have imagined it this time last year when the Bucs looked destined for an Omaha berth? A fiery, determined Keith LeClair would endure the cruel symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is named for Hall-of-Famer Lou Gehrig, who ironically played the same position — first base.

Though the disease limited LeClair's involvement this season, it didn't reduce his impact. Vowing to defeat the undefeated, the Pirates' head coach left an indelible imprint on his players, who adopted the never-quit mentality of their coach and friend.

“I believe that I will defeat this,” LeClair said earlier this year. “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.”

LeClair's words, both convincing and inspiring, carried over to East Carolina's play this season, especially when its back was against the wall.

After dropping three straight to TCU, the Bucs bounced back to win nine straight and return to the national rankings. Friday night, the Pirates erased a five-run deficit against red-hot Louisville to transform what appeared to be an inevitable defeat into a rousing triumph.

Lacking the talent of years past, assistant coach Kevin McMullan never quit tinkering with the lineup, constantly seeking the perfect offensive punch. Without the powerful pop to bust games open, he resorted to textbook baseball — situational hitting and a station-to-station approach on the paths.

Coach Mac's pinch-hit performance was exemplary, especially when you consider the pressures and emotions involved. Though LeClair's health worsened as the season progressed, the third-year assistant never lost focus, constantly reminding the Pirates of their long-range goals.

"You look around our office, and on my computer screen, it's Omaha," McMullan said. "In our locker room, we talk about going to Omaha. That is our goal."

It was a goal heard loud and clear with the break of each huddle, as the Pirates routinely shouted their simple, one-word battle cry — "Omaha!."

Though the season, overall, would be considered a success — 37 wins would move the fans to genuflect at most schools — it isn't the wins and losses that will be remembered most about this team. Rather, it will be the resolve with which a score of college kids played, and life's important lessons that were taught to us by an unflinching coach who is a winner — in every sense of the word.

Faith was at the forefront of this Purple machine, both in God and in each other. There was an impermeable bond with this team, one strong enough that each man considered his teammate a brother.

Those are the ideals LeClair taught us, the ideals by which he continues to live. Each breath reinforces those standards, brings to light the priorities about which our parents used to speak.

"You may go 0-for-4 and lose a game," centerfielder Warren Gaspar said, "but you look at Coach LeClair, and you realize it's just a baseball game. There's more to life than just baseball."

That's the unforgettable story about the 2002 Pirates, the team that statistically could get lost among the rest.

It's a team that by season's end may not have tangible evidence of its championship caliber, no hardware for its crowded trophy case.

But, rest assured. This group has already discovered an even greater victory — the championship of the human spirit.

Berth in the balance

Three weeks ago, ECU was entertaining thoughts of a fourth-consecutive NCAA No. 1 seed. Now, the Pirates are just hoping for a postseason bid.

Whether or not the Diamond Bucs attend college baseball's Big Dance could depend largely on their performance in this week's Conference USA tournament.

Stumble, and ECU could be left to ponder the What Ifs in relation to its late-season slide. Hang around until the weekend, and it will be tough for the selections committee to ignore these tough-as-nails Pirates.

Even then, nothing short of a tournament title assures the Pirates of an extended season and chance to reach college baseball's Holy Land. And one glance at the tournament pairings suggests that hoisting the championship trophy will be no easy task.

The first obstacle for the sixth-seeded Pirates is hard-hitting Texas Christian, which swept the Pirates in Greenville earlier this season. Bypass the formidable Frogs, and the Bucs will likely face Louisville, which pasted Pirate pitchers for 26 runs this past weekend.

If the Pirates are to make a serious run at the title, they will need to return to the basic principles that pushed them to the cusp of the nation's top 10 earlier this season — solid pitching, steady defense, and timely hitting. It has been well over three weeks since East Carolina put all three together in successive outings.

The good news is ace left hander Sam Narron is expected to return to the rotation after missing two starts with a sore arm. Perhaps his return could be the energizer the Pirates need to make the final postseason push.

No "Jungle," no problem

One thing that should way heavily in East Carolina's favor this week is the pro-Pirate crowd that will be on hand in Kinston, which has been a regular stop for ECU over the years.

The Pirates' most recent visit to Grainger Stadium occurred during last season's super regional, in which Tennessee staged late-inning comebacks on consecutive days to upend ECU's Omaha dreams.

ECU athletics director Mike Hamrick fondly remembers the atmosphere in K-Town last year, which he recently described as "rocking," despite the absence of the "Jungle."

"We didn't have a Jungle last year in Kinston, and we didn't have one in Wilson last year," Hamrick said. "But, I can still remember shaking the AD's hand at Tennessee last year in Kinston — Doug Dickey, and he's been there forever — and he told me 'Mike this is the best college baseball atmosphere I have ever seen."

With plans for a new stadium well under way, the Jungle's status has been a hot topic among the ECU faithful. For years, die-hards have lined the outfield wall at Harrington field, creating one of college baseball's most unique atmospheres — one that the Jungle's inhabitants would like to keep.

According to Hamrick, plans are in place to preserve ECU's rowdy baseball haven with a new-and-improved version of the Jungle.

"You can still have the Jungle atmosphere in our new stadium, and we're going to try to keep that," Hamrick said. "That's a good atmosphere, and it's one we like.

"Occasionally we have some problems with that, but we deal with it. The new stadium will have picnic areas, and it will have an area for the Jungle. It will be a stadium that is conducive to a family atmosphere — birthday parties and picnics."

'The Natural' from New Hanover

When C-USA announces its postseason awards, ECU first baseman Darryl Lawhorn will almost certainly be recognized as the league's top freshman, and is a virtual shoe-in to collect first-team All-C-USA honors.

If the voters truly do their homework, they'll consider him for the league's top player award, too.

Lawhorn led the Pirates in virtually every offensive category this season, including batting average (.413), home runs (16), runs batted in (56), slugging percentage (.711), and on base percentage (.502), just to name a few. His 16 dingers shattered the ECU freshman record for homers in a season previously held by John Williamson.

Lawhorn's performance is even more impressive when you consider just two other ECU regulars — catcher Clayton McCullough and second baseman Jedd Sorensen — batted over .300, while no other Pirate reached double digits in home runs.

Quick and athletic, Lawhorn stole a team-high 13 bases, and showed enough versatility on defense to man both infield and outfield corners at one point during the season or another. If need be, the Wilmington standout could even provide the Pirates spot duty out of the bullpen, considering he was initially recruited as a pitcher.

Yet, as attractive a candidate as Lawhorn may be, he will likely take second chair to talented Houston standout Jesse Crain, who posted impressive numbers at the plate (.318, 10 HR, 41 RBI) and on the mound (4-0, 0.00 ERA, 9 saves).

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Lawhorn's contribution to the cause is simply to acknowledge that the Pirates would likely be out of postseason contention without their freshman slugger.

Few in the Pirate camp would argue that another C-USA player was more valuable to his team than the "Natural" from New Hanover.

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02/23/2007 01:46:24 AM

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