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Notes, Quotes and Slants

Pirate Notebook No. 145
Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Fall ball opens with Omaha on the mind


When Randy Mazey looked back on his first season as head baseball coach at East Carolina — a year marked with disappointment when measured by recent ECU standards — he saw no reason to get caught up in pessimism.  After all, the Pirates did manage to collect their fifth-consecutive NCAA tournament bid, a streak that places the ECU baseball program among the nation's elite.

On the other hand, while the Pirates skipper wasn't moping, he wasn't jumping with joy, either.  The fact is, Mazey expects much better than the 33-25-1 regular season finish the Bucs produced last season — and will demand more from his team during fall practice.

That's the standard Keith LeClair set over the previous four seasons, and it's one Mazey has all intentions of maintaining.

“These people around here expect to win,” Mazey said last spring. “If the pressure wasn’t put on me by the fans and the media and everybody like that, I’d put it on myself, anyhow.

“We know we’re going to win here.  We know we’re going to be successful. We know we’re going to achieve our goals — it’s just a matter of time until that happens.

“With the new stadium coming in a couple of years, I really believe the pinnacle of this program is going to come two to three years after that stadium is built, after we’ve had a couple of years to recruit to the new stadium. We’re going to be able to attract the best players in the nation once that happens.”

East Carolina's accomplishments on the baseball diamond are somewhat astounding when you consider the facility it long has called home. Harrington Field, though quaint and intimate, pales in comparison to the facilities in which most programs of ECU's caliber play. In many ways, it more closely resembles a glorified high school park than the home of a perennial NCAA postseason contender.

The metal bleachers behind home plate are outdated and no longer provide the sufficient amount of seats to accommodate overflow crowds.  That isn't an issue for the self-proclaimed good-time ECU bunch that happily resides in the 'Jungle', the wooded area behind the left field wall, which, for years, has provided a strong home-field advantage.

When the new stadium is unveiled in the 2005, fans will be happy to find the Jungle preserved, and there should be plenty of action there to keep them busy.

“The new stadium is going to be conducive to bringing in guys who can hit the ball out of the park,” Mazey said. “We’re going to try and focus our efforts on that.

"I’ve never done that before. I’ve always recruited guys who can run a little bit, but it’s going to be interesting to see how we can bring some guys in here who can pepper the ‘Jungle’ so to speak.”

Though the long-range revenue potential of the new stadium is certainly a catalyst for its construction — money always is a driving force with facilities expansion — it is not what motivated the capital campaign. When LeClair guided the Pirates to NCAA No. 1 seeds in '99 and '00, but the team was forced to travel for regional play, it sent a clear message that it was time for East Carolina to pump major bucks into its burgeoning baseball program.

The Pirates finally got their chance to host in '01, but had to do so 30 miles away. The new stadium will prevent that from occurring in the future, and that is one of several ingredients Mazey says is needed for the program to reach its ultimate goal — a trip to Omaha for the College World Series.

“You need experience,” he said. “You don’t see young, talented teams in Omaha. You see older, more experienced teams that have been there.

“The one thing that helps us is we play a great schedule and we play in some hostile atmospheres, which you have to do to get to Omaha. The last time I was there, there was only one team in the field of eight that didn’t host its Super Regional. Ironically, that was Tennessee. We won that Super Regional on the road (in Kinston).

“But in order to get there, you’ve got to host. It’s hard to get there on the road, playing in those atmospheres. That’s why that stadium is going to be so important.”

There is plenty of evidence to support that statement.  The host team has advanced to the Super Regionals in three of East Carolina's five-consecutive regional appearances. On three of those occasions, the Pirates were a No. 1 seed.

That isn't to suggest that Mazey is overlooking the most important ingredient — talent — something he says he has to increase to better position the Pirates for an Omaha run.  The past two seasons have revealed the need to focus recruiting efforts on offense, where the Bucs have struggled with consistency.

"I really thought coming out of fall practice we were going to be a pretty good offensive team," Mazey said, referring to last season's autumn drills.  "We've shown flashes of it but we haven't been very consistent offensively.  We tried a lot of different lineups early and used a lot of guys."

East Carolina was batting a paltry .271 entering NCAA play last spring, with just four regulars — Darryl Lawhorn (.326), Jamie Paige (.306), Jake Smith (.301), and Ryan Norwood (.300) — above the .300 mark.  All four are back this year.

The Pirates did, however, post some pretty decent power numbers, blasting 60 home runs, third-best in Conference USA.  Lawhorn and Norwood tied for the team lead in home runs and RBIs (13 HR, 43 RBI), while Smith, a true freshman catcher from Greensboro, emerged as a future all-star after belting ten homers and 26 RBIs in just 143 at bats.

The Pirates faired much better on the mound last year, posting a respectable 4.10 earned run average — third best in the league — which is quite an accomplishment considering the loss of two weekend starters from the '02 season.  The Pirates will face a similar transition this year with five seniors moving on, though Mazey thinks he more than accounted for that in the early signing period.

"We're very excited about the group of young men we've signed for the 2004 season," Mazey said.  "We know that we're going to lose some very talented pitchers and were able to get some of the best pitchers in the state.  It's a very talented group that we're expecting big things from in the coming years."

Mazey expects immediate help from Carter Harrell, a transfer from Louisburg College who played his freshman season at North Carolina, where he compiled an 8-4 record with a 3.88 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 58 innings.  East Carolina also received signatures from John Emmert, ranked the state's top left-handed pitcher by Baseball America, and Mike Flye from Greenville Rose High, who also is rated among the nation's top prep players.

Other notable signees include Drew Costanzo — another Louisburg transfer — who batted .392 with 12 HRs and 66 RBIs last season, and southpaw pitcher Dustin Sasser, a Goldsboro native who tallied 94 Ks in 58.1 innings last season.

All totaled, the Pirates inked seven in-state players, including three from east of I-95.

“The reason that baseball in Eastern North Carolina is so good is the feeder programs,” Mazey said. “These kids when they’re 8, 10, 12, 13-years old, they’ve got great coaches and great opportunities to play a lot.

“That’s what makes the high school and legion programs so good — they’ve got great players to choose from because they’ve played so much when they were younger. You can go around the country and look at the hotbeds of talent and that’s the common denominator — the feeder programs. That’s what drives Greenville.”

And it is Mazey's vision of Omaha, which was first introduced by LeClair, that drives East Carolina.  It's a dream that became a reality for the Pirates skipper in 2001, when, as an assistant at Tennessee, he set foot on the hallowed grounds of Rosenblatt Stadium after the Volunteers inched past the Pirates in the Kinston Super Regional.

“It’s an unbelievable atmosphere,” Mazey said. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me — administrators and fans, people who have been to bowl games and Final Fours — they tell that the atmosphere in Omaha is better than all of them.

“I believe it. It’s hard-pressed for me to visualize any college atmosphere being as good as that one out there. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”

It's also an experience he plans to relive.

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02/23/2007 01:53:37 AM


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