Stepping Up: Senior Pirates’ legacy not defined by this season

Published 1:39 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will East Carolina’s first trip to Omaha for the College World Series.

A year ago, this ECU senior class — then juniors — came closer to the pinnacle of NCAA baseball than any other team had before. Travis Watkins belted a three-run home run to highlight a five-run ninth inning as ECU walked off against defending national champion and 10th-ranked Charlottesville Regional host Virginia. They topped William & Mary, 8-4, in the final to advance to a Super Regional at Texas Tech.

ECU won the first of the best-of-three series. Texas Tech escaped the second game with a 3-1, 13-inning win and went on to torch a depleted Pirate pitching staff, 11-0, to advance to Omaha.

Expectations were high as Watkins and the eight other seniors returned this season. The Pirates earned a top-10 preseason ranking, but a myriad of injuries at least partially led to the season coming unraveled once American Athletic Conference play began. ECU started 0-10 against league competition.

It put an at-large NCAA tournament berth just about out of reach. The nine-man senior cohort didn’t want their season to end, and coach Cliff Godwin still had his heart set on getting to Omaha so he could retire legendary skipper Keith LeClair’s No. 23 jersey.

They almost completed a run through the AAC tournament that would have been material for an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary. The Pirates earned just seven wins in conference during the regular season, but managed three victories over a pair of No. 2 seed NCAA tournament teams in South Florida and Central Florida.

Houston brought an abrupt end to that dream with a 6-0 win in the title game on Sunday. However, this senior class’ legacy is defined by so much more than one game or even one season.

Kirk Morgan, Charlie Yorgen, Eric Tyler, Bryce Harman, Jacob Wolfe, Evan Kruczynski and Luke Bolka were newcomers to the Pirate program in 2014. Travis Watkins joined a year prior, and Wesley Phillips transferred in a year later.

Charlie Yorgen swings for the fences during a game this past season. Yorgen was sensational in the AAC tournament, but ECU couldn’t overcome Houston in the title game. Yorgen has been one of the team’s most consistent pieces since arriving as a freshman.

ECU finished just a handful of games above .500 and went 1-3 in the Conference-USA tournament in 2014. That led to the ousting of then-coach Billy Godwin. Cliff Godwin — an eastern North Carolina native and former Pirate himself — took over in 2015, and ECU finished the season with 40 wins and an AAC championship.

The Pirates followed that up with another 38 wins and that Super-Regional appearance last season. ECU returned five of its top-six batters, its ace in Kruczynski, rookie phenom Dwanya Williams-Sutton and welcomed a lauded freshman class. Even so, those results didn’t carry over.

They didn’t play in the College World Series and couldn’t help Godwin retire LeClair’s number. Godwin has told them time and again, though, that they’ll be able to point to signs of their legacy when they return to Clark-LeClair Stadium years from now.

They played a role in the team getting an indoor batting cage, a new scoreboard and numerous other amenities that will help the program’s success in the future. Moreover, the success these seniors had helped recruit this year’s strong freshman class. They taught younger standouts like Williams-Sutton, Turner Brown, Spencer Brickhouse and others about what it takes to win on and off the field.

They laid the groundwork for the future of ECU baseball. If and when the Pirates arrive in Omaha, these nine seniors won’t be there, but they will have surely played a role in it happening.