Pirates in prime position to win conference, make run at regional

Published 12:21 pm Friday, May 8, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS FIRST PITCH: ECU’s turnaround could soon culminate in a conference championship.

FIRST PITCH: ECU’s turnaround could soon culminate in a conference championship.

GREENVILLE — When East Carolina head coach Cliff Godwin accepted the position at his alma mater back in June, he inherited a team that was fresh off of a 33-26 season. Now, with just two weeks remaining in the regular season, he has helped turn the team around and put them in a position to win the American Athletic Conference.

The expectations that come with inheriting a winning team, on that fired its coach the previous year, are enormous, especially at a school known for its baseball prowess, craving a return to relevancy.

Godwin knew that when he was hired from Ole Miss, where, as an assistant, he helped orchestrate the Rebels’ appearance in the College World Series.

He also got a taste of ECU’s baseball expectations from 1996-2000, playing for the Pirates under then-head coach Keith LeClair and helping take the program to a Super Regional.

The success didn’t continue, however, and when former head coach Billy Godwin was fired shortly after the conclusion of last season, it was clear that those in ECU’s Athletic Department were looking for a spark.

It appears as though they found that spark in the 37-year old coach, as this weekend’s series with Houston could potentially decide who gets crowned the AAC regular season champs.

Both the Cougars and the Pirates are tied for first in the conference and the winner of the weekend series would take a firm grasp on the title and seemingly control their own destiny.

“That’s the goal,” Godwin said of his conference hopes. “Any time you’re playing meaningful baseball in April and early May, you’ve done what you wanted to do. I’m just proud that we’re in a position to hopefully win the conference.”

Godwin spent most of the beginning of the season talking about one expectation. Omaha, the home of the College World Series, was the singular focus of the first-year head coach.

Even after the team was swept by national power Virginia to unceremoniously start his career and the season, Godwin never relented, claiming that Omaha was the peak.

“Coach has been preaching it all year,” co-captain and senior shortstop Hunter Allen said. “If we play hard and play our game then we’ll be able to put ourselves in a good spot at that end of the year.”

His focus on postseason success has trickled down to his team. The last ECU squad to make it to an NCAA Regional was the 2011-2012 team and since then the Pirates have been unable to make it any further than the postseason tournament.

Godwin’s familiarity with the program has allowed him to accurately assess its state. His knowledge hasn’t been confined, though, as even his players understand what winning means at ECU.

“It would be awesome, not just for me, but for this program to get back to a regional,” Allen said. “We haven’t been in a regional or done anything in conference really for two years so it would be fun with this group of guys to get there this year.”

This season, barring an epic collapse, the Pirates seem destined for a regional bid and could potentially make it as far with the AAC crown atop their heads.

“It’s always an expectation at any school,” Allen said. “We’ve got goals in our locker room and winning the American is one of those goals. That’s just what we’re trying to do and we’re going to take it one day at a time.”

The version of this year’s Pirates, one that seemed unlikely to succeed due to its lack of depth in the bullpen and the loss of a multitude of players from a season ago, is possibly just the start of what’s in store for the program.

Godwin has been lauded in the coaching ranks for his recruiting success and his full vision will become more clear around year three of his ECU tenure.

Allen won’t be around past this season and with his career coming to a close, he pointed to the present and the seemingly bright future in store for the program.

“It would be awesome to win the American,” Allen said. “Then to host a regional or go to a regional and keep climbing the ladder, of course the ultimate goal is Omaha so it would be exciting if we get there.”

For now, though, the skipper and his players have a chance to set the foundation of the future and a series win in Houston would make the conference ECU’s to lose.