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"Condo's" battle colors
emotions of regional

AP Sports Writer contributed to this report.

CLEMSON, SC (AP) — Clemson coach Jack Leggett watched his former player at Western Carolina, Keith LeClair, grow into his nickname, ``Condo,'' and mature into a successful college coach.

So it brings tears to Leggett's eyes when he sees his friend and East Carolina's leader robbed of speech and barely able to move because of the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig's disease.

``We'd always dreamed we'd end up in Omaha together,'' Leggett said before the NCAA regional, his voice trailing off.

Now, it's Leggett's top-seeded Tigers (48-14) who are the next obstacle in the way of LeClair's Pirates (42-18-1), who would relish nothing more — as a tribute to their coach — than to take the next step towards the Mecca of college baseball.

The heart-tugging pairing of the old friends' teams came together in Friday's first day of action. ECU, the No. 2 seed, pounced on Elon 13-7 in the afternoon game and Clemson mauled Georgia Southern 15-1 in the nightcap to set up today's poignant encounter (3 PM).

LeClair, the 36-year-old, fifth-year coach, is fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — an incurable illness that attacks the muscles.

The Tigers' boss, Leggett, and ECU's players, won't be the only ones here with LeClair on their minds.

Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon was a player at Western Carolina when LeClair succeeded Leggett there in 1992. Hennon later joined LeClair's staff with the Catamounts and followed as head coach when LeClair left for the Pirates.

And the 'family' ties go deeper.

``The baseball coaching world,'' says Clemson assistant Erik Bakich, who also played and coached for LeClair at East Carolina, ``is a really small fraternity.''

LeClair first felt sluggish last summer and went for tests. Several family members on his mother's side have had the disease.

For a while, it was unclear LeClair was battling the same thing. One test indicated he could have Lyme disease.

``It's ALS,'' said Jody Jones of East Carolina's sports information office. ``Coach told me.''

LeClair was hospitalized in intensive care last month following a series with Charlotte. Soon after, he gave on-field duties to assistants Kevin McMullan and Tommy Eason.

McMullan still tries to run baseball decisions by LeClair, who mostly listens to games on the radio and communicates with a spelling machine.

East Carolina pitcher
Davey Penny holds up a tribute to Pirate
coach Keith LeClair
after ECU defeated
Houston May 26 for the Conference USA
Photo: Denny O'Brien

LeClair gave his team instant motivation last Sunday, attending the Conference USA tournament finals and watching from a van parked in rightfield.

When the Pirates concluded their 4-0 victory over Houston, the players rushed the trophy over to LeClair and dumped an ice bucket on his van.

Leggett said he got chills when told.

``It was a pretty special scene for everyone,'' McMullan said.

East Carolina third baseman Bryant Ward, the first player LeClair recruited, said the coach only discussed his disease with the team once.

``He didn't make it out like it was a such a big deal,'' he said. ``He didn't really want us to think about it and let it affect our play.''

Putting his team first — that's just what Leggett would expect from LeClair.

``He became a great leader,'' Leggett said.

LeClair and East Carolina have won four straight conference titles, averaging 45 victories a season.

Leggett remembers LeClair's playing days at Western Carolina. He once told a pumped-up LeClair he was as big as a house. The next time in the weight room, Leggett said, he told LeClair he was as big as a condominium.

``That nickname, 'Condo,' stuck,'' Leggett said.

LeClair hasn't lost that spirit to improve, his friends say.

``He's the same way now as then — an absolute warrior,'' Bakich said.

Leggett has seen Lou Gehrig's disease ravage a friend before. Western Carolina football coach and athletic director Bob Waters hired Leggett in 1983. Five years later, Waters died of ALS.

``I was with him the whole time,'' Leggett said. ``This is a coincidental type thing I guess.''

To go through it again with LeClair is hard, said Leggett, who raised $35,000 after starting the Keith LeClair Foundation.

``You don't get a chance to see him as much as you want to, contact him as much as you want,'' Leggett said. ``You'll call and be talking to him, but don't get a response.''

All LeClair's friends will visit often this weekend. LeClair will watch in the van along the first-base line at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

McMullan, the Pirates assistant, says the club hopes to carry the inspiration from their stricken coach past this opening round and, perhaps, to Omaha, NE, and the College World Series.

``Keith's a fighter,'' McMullan said. ``He has a great will to compete and right now he's competing for his next day. That's a wonderful thing. It's a reflection of how this team has competed down the stretch.''.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press.  All rights reserved.  This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. contributed to this report.

02/23/2007 10:45 AM

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