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Friday, March 4, 2016

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt


Pirates pay homage to legend

By Al Myatt
2016 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

Even before former East Carolina baseball coach Keith LeClair succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease in 2006, a means of honoring the memory of the man who envisioned the Pirates playing in the College World Series was sought.

Clark-LeClair Stadium, capable of hosting NCAA Tournament play which its predecessor, Harrington Field, was not was completed over a year before LeClair's passing. A baseball event of national significance was also a means of paying homage.

The 13th annual Keith LeClair Classic will start on ECU's baseball grounds today. The Pirates meet Southeastern Louisiana at 4:30 p.m.

ECU coach Cliff Godwin played for LeClair. Godwin was a senior on the 2001 team that played Tennessee in a Super Regional at Grainger Stadium in Kinston. The Volunteers won by scores of 13-10 and 6-3.

Godwin wears LeClair's No. 23 now. When the Pirates make it to the CWS in Omaha, NE, Godwin plans for the jersey to be retired as another tribute.

LeClair was a believer in the value of hard work.

"The thing that made Coach special was he got a group of guys who weren't necessarily the most talented to be blue collar, to feel like they had worked harder than everybody else in the country and really expected to win every time they stepped foot on the field," Godwin said. "We had some good players, the Chad Tracys and (Lee) Delfinos and the (John) Williamsons, but you also had the blue collar guys who probably weren't highly touted, the Brad Simons.

"I was one of those guys. I wasn't highly recruited out of high school and others who weren't just bought into a system and bought into competing every single day really bought into taking East Carolina baseball to Omaha. That was coach's vision from day one when he stepped foot on campus here at East Carolina. It still is his vision. I know he's looking down on us right now and that's his vision for East Carolina baseball."

LeClair coached ECU from 1998 to 2002, compiling a 212-96-1 record during that span.

First impression

Godwin recalled the first time he met Coach LeClair.

"It was at Strickland and Dail's, which was a restaurant kind of in between Snow Hill and Farmville with Coach LeClair, Howard McCullough and Coach James 'Rabbit' Fulghum (from Greene Central, Godwin's alma mater)," Godwin recalled. "It was the summer that he was hired. We had lunch there. That was the first time I met him. ... My first impression was I was scared. I was scared that there was a new sheriff in town and I better get my stuff in order.

"I redshirted my freshman year and kind of felt my way through it a little bit. I said, 'Hey, you know what, I better really get after it. If not, I'm not going to be here.' That was my first impression of Coach LeClair."

2001 Pirates

The 2001 team tied the school record for wins in a season with 47. The Pirates had to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team because although they went 19-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association they were not allowed to compete for the league's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament because they were making the transition to Conference USA the following year.

In the regional at Fleming Stadium in Wilson, the Pirates dispatched Maryland-Baltimore County, 7-0, beat South Florida, 12-8, and advanced to meet Tennessee by turning back Winthrop, 7-3.

The Pirates play Tennessee again on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

A lot has changed since the Super Regional 15 years ago.

"I was part of that team in 2001," Godwin said. "Obviously so close but yet so far away, that Super Regional. There's different coaching staffs on both sides now so it's just different. Dave Serrano (current Tennessee coach) was the head coach at Cal State-Fullerton at the time. There's different coaching staffs on both sides now so I don't know if that will have a ton of relevance to this weekend."

Negligible momentum

ECU moved into the national rankings this week on the strength of wins in the first two games of a three-game set last weekend at Virginia, the defending College World Series champions.

The euphoria Pirate Nation was enjoying took a hit with five errors in a 4-2 loss to the Cavaliers on Sunday and an 8-7 setback from Elon in 10 innings on Wednesday.

"Short-lived after last night," Godwin said Thursday. "I'm happy for East Carolina University. I'm happy for the alums. I'm happy for our guys because they earned it but it doesn't mean anything right now.

"We weren't ready to play (Wednesday) early. Elon wanted it more than us and they beat us. You've got to show up every day and that's probably the toughest thing to get 18- to 21-year-olds to do every single day is be ready to play at your highest level. If you're not, you have an opportunity to get beat like we did."

ECU seemed to be its own worst enemy at times in the series finale at UVa.

"You're not going to win any game if you make five errors," Godwin said. "We did hang in there and Jimmy Boyd was really the reason because he just hung in there. He was just really composed and didn't let an error rattle him. He just stayed in there and kept fighting. He pitched seven innings. It's tough to pitch seven innings behind five errors. He really just kept them at bay. He gave us an opportunity to at least bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth."

Sterling reliever Joe Ingle had three walks that preceded Elon's winning run in the top of the 10th on Wednesday.

"Joe didn't lose the game for us," Godwin said. "The game was lost much earlier. We extended Joe and I'm not making excuses for him. Joe Ingle went out for three innings. We should have won the game in the bottom of the ninth and he would have only had to pitch two.

"The game was lost early in the game. In the fifth and sixth innings, walks and errors, hit batters in the same inning you can't do that. You can't have a walk, an error and a hit batter in the same inning. You're going to give up crooked numbers and that's what we did. We had some opportunities to score more runs, which we didn't. Just didn't play well. Early in the game there wasn't enough sense of urgency.

"They woke us up when they scored two runs. Then we scored two. It was kind of too late there in my opinion but it was a good learning experience for us that if you don't come ready to play then you can lose."

Rotation may be adjusted

The Pirates have used a starting rotation of Evan Kruczynski, Jacob Wolfe and Boyd the first two weekends of the season.

How many innings the bullpen must fill Friday and Saturday will determine if Boyd starts on the mound Sunday.

"Definitely Kruczynski and Wolfe (Friday and Saturday)," Godwin said. "We stretched our bullpen pretty thin (Wednesday) so Boyd might have to pitch in relief. We're going to see how he feels. ... We've just got to feel it out. Our focus is to win on Friday, whatever it takes to win on Friday. Then win on Saturday. Then we'll figure Sunday out. But if Boyd doesn't pitch (in relief Friday or Saturday), he'll start on Sunday."

The Pirates take on Maryland on Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

Recruiting against the Reds

ECU freshman Dwanya Williams-Sutton was a 26th round draft choice by the Cincinnati Reds last year. He's hitting .481 with nine RBIs in ECU's 6-2 start.

Williams-Sutton and Isaiah White led Greenfield School of Wilson to the NCISAA 1-A championship as high school seniors. The ECU coach met the duo shortly after returning to his alma mater as baseball coach.

"He was already committed to East Carolina before we got the job here," Godwin said of Williams-Sutton. "I got the job on a Thursday and Saturday, Dwanya, Isaiah White and Earl Taylor were sitting in my office. Earl had coached them in travel baseball.

"Earl looked at me and said, 'Hey, you still want these boys?' I said, 'Yes, I still want these boys.' I really had never seen them play at the time but I had heard they were both super athletes. That was the first time that I met him was on that Saturday after I got the job. I think that was about June 27th of 2014."

White was taken in the third round by the Miami Marlins and opted to sign a pro contract.

"The recruiting thing is different in baseball," Godwin said. "You have to continue to recruit kids because of the draft. I sat with them the second day of the draft. It wasn't to put pressure on them. It was for me to be there to support them. If they got the amount of money they were looking for to sign a professional contract and if they didn't then come to school at East Carolina University."

Godwin ended up batting .500 on the Greenfield tandem.

Family will toss first pitches

LeClair's family will be on hand for the event honoring the memory of their esteemed husband and father.

"Lynn (LeClair's wife) is coming and J.D., his son, and Audrey, his daughter," Godwin said. "They will be here and they're going to throw out the first pitch on Saturday."

E-mail Al Myatt

PAGE UPDATED 03/04/16 02:22 AM.

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