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Pirate Notebook No. 69
Monday, May 27, 2002

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Pirates had more to fight for than a title


ECU tamed adversity to seize the prize...
Teams play waiting game for NCAA bids...
Pirate fans get R-E-S-P-E-C-T from a foe...
Hey, Coach, how 'bout a car wash..?

Tournament Week Resources

 • Pirate Baseball Super Page
 • Final C-USA Standings

 • C-USA Tournament Central
 • C-USA Tournament Brackets

News, Notes and Schedule Info

Pirates had more than title in mind...

C-USA finalizes title game TV details...

ECU keeps championship hopes alive...

Will baseball be ECU's first title sport..?

ECU counterpunches to deck Bulls...

Narron gigs Frogs in round one...

Tendonitis healed — just ask TCU...

Bailey: LeClair pays timely visit...

Narron skills go beyond the mound...

Pirate stalwarts capture C-USA loot...

League awards highest accolades...

C-USA 2002 All-Conference teams...

C-USA 2002 All-Freshman team...

O'Brien: Year of timeless lessons...

Bonesville: Regular season recap...

Tourney title game slated for TV...

ECU 2002 box scores & attendance...


Story played out like a movie

KINSTON — Add the final chapter to the Pirates' storybook run through the Conference USA tournament.  Paint it in the deepest shade of purple, and bind it in 24-karat gold.

East Carolina, which prior to Wednesday was mired in a late-season slump, defied all logic Sunday, shaking off its middle-of-the-pack finish during the regular season to top 7th-ranked Houston 4-0 for the league crown.

Battling adversity, both on the field and off, the Pirates never threw in the towel on the 2002 season. Showing the grit and determination of its ailing coach — Keith LeClair — ECU gave an awe-inspiring performance, one worthy of an Oscar-caliber movie.

After the Pirates applied the finishing touches to their masterpiece victory, they led the crowd of 3,511 in a tear-jerking chant, honoring their skipper with a repetitious one-word cheer of "Keith!"

"With our coach in the situation that he's in," right fielder Ryan Jones said, "there's no way we could have given up, with everything he's been through, and everything he's doing right now.  He's fighting for his life, so we had to fight as hard as we could for him."

With the win, East Carolina (41-18-1) locked up the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which begins on Friday.  The loss by Houston (44-15) ended an 11-game winning streak by the Cougars, who figure to be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA announces the tournament pairings later today.

"It was an outstanding college baseball game, from the first pitch to the last," ECU assistant coach Kevin McMullan said.  "The kids were really, really focused — and refocused — after obviously not the type of finish we would have liked at the end of the regular season.  But, that's what the postseason is all about — we preach it to our kids all the time.

"I'm really proud of these guys.  Guys that are not having the type of years they would have liked have believed in the team concept and have done what we've asked."

Conference USA's Baseball Champions, the East Carolina Pirates, hoist the title trophy and a sign tribute to their ailing head coach, Keith LeClair, after blanking No. 1 seed Houston, 4-0, Sunday at Kinston's Grainger Stadium for the crown. It's the first team championship for ECU in any sport since entering the league.
Photo: Denny O'Brien.  ©2002

None shined brighter Sunday than Jones, the unlikely hero for the unlikely championship team.  The sophomore right fielder struggled throughout much of the season, but turned things around in the tournament, capping it off with a 2-3, three-RBI performance against the Cougars, including a dramatic two-run homer in the eighth off reliever Nathan Mitchell to seal the deal for the Pirates.

Pinch hitter Daniel Vick singled home Warren Gaspar later in the inning to give the Pirates an insurance run against the hard-hitting Cougars.

"I got down two strikes," Jones said of his two-run blast.  "I was just trying to compete and put (the ball) in play as (well) as I could.  Fortunately, he hung one up a little bit and I got a good piece of it.

"Today, I actually got the opportunity to drive in some runs for my team, and give us a nice little lead going into the last inning."

Davey Penny (8-3) went six innings for the Pirates to pick up his eighth win of the year.  Penny scattered seven hits, while walking two and striking out five before making way for reliever Neal Sears, who pitched the final three innings to record his fifth save of the year.

Sears, who made three appearances during the week, earned All-Tournament honors, joining Jones, Sam Narron, and Darryl Lawhorn, who was named the tournament's MVP after going 8-16 on the week.

"When I come in, that is my job," Sears said.  "Come in and just close the door.  I love getting the opportunity — it was a blast.  Davey Penny did an outstanding job for us today.  He kept us in the ballgame."

Despite yielding seven hits, Penny kept Houston's two best hitters — Chris Snyder and Brett Cooley — at bay for much of the day.  The dynamic duo entered Sunday's game with a combined 31 home runs, but managed just one hit — a single by Synder in the third.

Penny's performance was even more notably impressive considering the breezy conditions that favored the Cougars' long-ball tandem.

"I said a little prayer before every pitch," Penny said.  "I bared down when I needed to. They've got some big guys that swing some big sticks.  We were just trying to keep the ball down, and work our breaking balls away."

Houston issued serious scoring threats in the third, fourth, and sixth innings, but each time, Penny managed to pitch his way out of trouble, thanks to the solid play of second baseman Jedd Sorenson. 

In the third and fourth innings, Sorenson was spectacular in turning double plays to end each of the innings.  His sensational sliding catch and heads-up throw to the plate prevented the Cougars from scratching the surface in the sixth.

"He made a great play, because we had a hit-and-run on, and he broke to the bag, and then had to really turn his direction to make that catch," Houston head coach Rayner Noble said.  "I think that was extremely pivotal in the game — that play right there."

Sorenson struggled early in the game, allowing Thanos Papavasilio to reach base on a routine ground ball to lead off the second inning, then booting a ball in the third off the bat of Keith Whatley.  But neither mistake proved costly, as Sorenson more than made up for the mistakes with his splendid play.

"Jedd's a blue collar guy," McMullan said.  "He made outstanding plays today.

"He's a guy that thinks he's going to be the man.  We have a thing coming out of the dugout where we say 'Who wants the ball?'  He raises his hand like he's a church school kid — gotta go to the bathroom every time.  He has a lot of confidence and never gets down.  He came up big for us today."

The Pirates got their first run in the fifth when Ryan Jones looped a two-out, two-strike single into right field to drive in catcher Clatyon McCullough, who reached on a walk.  McCullough had moved to third on the first hit off losing pitcher Danny Zell (7-1) — a single by short stop Luke Cherry — before scoring on Jones' first of two hits.

The single by Jones sent Zell to the showers, as reliever Mitchell retired pinch hitter Jamie Paige to end the inning.

"We focus on getting better everyday, but we talk about postseason play," McMullan said.  "That's hopefully why these kids came to East Carolina.

"You can ask every one of them, and I'm sure they'll tell you the same thing.  They want to go to Omaha, and that's what we preach when we sell this program.  Obviously, there's steps in that road.  Today was the first part in those steps."

The Pirates will take their next step along that postseason journey Friday.  They will learn later today just when and where that will take place.

C-USA teams play waiting game

Several teams entered the C-USA tournament on the NCAA bubble, including East Carolina.  With the Pirates winning the conference tournament yesterday, the league is now almost assured of getting three bids, with Houston a solid favorite to claim a No. 1 seed, while Louisville is a safe bet to secure at least a No. 3.

As for the rest, they'll have to wait until this afternoon when the NCAA announces its selections, which will be interesting with the recent changes in the tournament's setup.

The NCAA revamped its selection process this season, seeking to keep teams closer to home.  The NCAA will now allow conference foes to play in the same regional, a rule that wasn't necessarily embraced by Noble.

"It's debatable whether it's good or bad," Noble said.  "But, I don't like what the NCAA is doing, especially when they're putting teams from the same conference in the same regional.  I just don't like that.

"The NCAA is into making money, there's no doubt about that.  That's why we're doing all of this — regionalizing everything."

The new process could throw a new kink into the equation, considering college baseball's strongest programs are located south of the Mason-Dixon.  Experts have suggested the northern regions could be considerably weaker, and that many of the south's bubble teams could get left out as a consequence.

Nonetheless, the coaches in Kinston this past week suggested their league should be well represented come Selection Monday, due largely to the conference's high RPI.

"I think there are seven teams in this league that could go to the NCAA tournament, and play well, win a game, win two games, and even win the regional," said South Florida head coach Eddie Cardieri.  "Realistically, there's probably six that deserve to go, because I'm not sure that TCU's overall record is good enough for them to go.

"But, the other six teams, positively, can go.  What do I think is going to happen?  I think we're going to get five. So much of that has to do with in these tournaments — teams that otherwise wouldn't get a bid win them and spots start to get taken up."

Tulane head coach Rick Jones is encouraged about the Green Wave's chances at securing an at-large bid because of his team's solid play during the latter part of the season.

"The NCAA talks about that as being part of the criteria," Jones said.  "Since we've gotten healthier, we've been a pretty doggone good club.

"The NCAA tournament with a four-team format, or a Super Regional where it's best two out of three — we can be as  challenging as anybody right now because we've got a pretty solid lineup, and we're starting to score.  If you took the last 15-20 ballgames, and threw that in there, I think we'd be as representative as any team in the country.

"I told our guys that I think we might be on the front side of the bubble, but I don't think we're off it.  I think we're certainly a viable option."   

Pirate partisans mattered in Grainger

Did the fans have an impact in Kinston this past week?  Cardieri sure thinks so.

When asked about the vocal crowd following South Florida's 3-2 loss to ECU in the tournament semifinals, the Golden Bulls 17-year head coach had nothing but high praise for the folks clad in purple and gold.

"If you're a player at East Carolina, it's tremendous," Cardieri said.  "Believe me, the crowd plays an important role in baseball.  Don't think it doesn't.  Home field plays an important role.  There is no doubt about it.

"They're good fans.  They're good baseball fans.  It's reminiscent of LSU — when we played at LSU a few years back.  In fact, it's the same colors."

McCullough said following the Pirates' win over Houston that the 3,500-plus diehards that packed Grainger was an important part of the Pirates' championship equation.

"Without them, you don't know what could have happened," McCullough said.  "They kept us in it when the game was close.

"We didn't get any hits through the first five innings and they never gave up on us.  Then, we got a few runs, and they got energized.  That's part of the reason we won this tournament is because of those people."

At the car wash

It's not unusual for players to give their head coach a Gatorade shower following a marquee victory.  But it isn't every day that you see a team dump the cooler on the coach's car.

With LeClair unable to sit in the dugout during games, due to the effects of Lou Gehrig's Disease, the Pirates' fourth-year head coach viewed every game of the championship run from a two-toned blue van parked in front of the visiting bullpen.

 So, since the jubilant Bucs couldn't shower LeClair following their win over Houston Sunday, they did the next best thing — they hosed the van.

"Basically, Davey (Penny) just walked up to me and was like, 'Neal, let's run down and dump the cooler on the van,'" Sears said.  "At first, I was kinda like 'I don't know, man, it's kinda out there.  All of a sudden, I looked over and Bryant Ward was like 'Yeah, let's do it!'  So, we got the cooler, and took off down the right field line."

According to McMullan, such behavior isn't out of the ordinary for the Pirates' winning pitcher, who goes out of his way to be different, for different's sake.

"That's routine David Penny," McMullan said.  "He'll try to wear flip-flops on every away trip.  If it's not meant to be done, he'll try to do it."

One thing's for certain, the Pirate prankster hurled East Carolina to its biggest victory of the season.  And even McMullan would have to admit, in this case, it did seem like it was meant to be.

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02/23/2007 01:46:25 AM

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