Stepping Up: ECU baseball puts its money where its mouth is

Published 4:39 pm Friday, November 3, 2017

East Carolina baseball had high hopes last year. As the football and basketball teams struggled, fans could point to the baseball team and its preseason top-10 rankings and say, “well, we have this team to look forward to.”

For good reason, too. The Pirates came oh so close to the program’s first appearance in the College World Series. A loaded senior class complemented by a highly touted group of underclassmen meant a lot of promise.

But key players like Dwanya Williams-Sutton and Evan Kruczynski missed action due to injuries. At times, it also seemed as if ECU wasn’t mentally prepared to deal with the pressure associated with being the American Athletic Conference favorite and, in many ways, an expected national program.

ECU made it all the way to the AAC tournament championship game, but fell to Houston and missed out on a regional altogether. The Pirates floated just above .500 with a 32-28 record and 7-17 finish in the league.

The Pirates have doubled down on their aspirations to compete for not only conference championships, but also an NCAA title. Their 2018 schedule features 17 teams that played in an NCAA Regional last year. Fifteen teams on the slate either finished the season ranked or were earning votes in the various national polls.

Of course, a number of those opponents are AAC foes. Houston finished the 2017 campaign ranked No. 22 by Baseball America. South Florida and Central Florida were also in and out of national polls. Both were ranked when ECU defeated them in the conference tournament.

A home series with Western Carolina to open the season will be crucial to the Pirates finding their footing quickly. They opened 2017 at eighth-ranked Ole Miss. While they took positives away in being swept by a combined four runs, it still put them behind the eight ball.

Its especially important because the following weekend will see ECU take on North Carolina in the first-ever series between the in-state rivals. The Tar Heels finished last season ranked 11th. The series opener will be held in Greenville. The two will play a neutral game in Durham on Saturday before closing the set in Chapel Hill.

The third weekend marks the annual Keith LeClair Classic. Missouri State, ranked 17th at the end of last year, will be one of the schools visiting for the weekend.

The conference slate will be tough from the onset as the Pirates open AAC play at UCF.

This year will see coach Cliff Godwin’s stellar recruits take center stage. Sophomores will be asked to step into greater responsibilities. Spencer Brickhouse, a Bunn product, is likely to be the full-time first baseman after Bryce Harman’s graduation.

On the mound, sophomores Jake Agnos, Tyler Smith and Trey Benton all showed promise as rookies. Each will be expected to take a step forward.

The four-senior contingent isn’t nearly as talented as the group that recently graduated. An 11-man junior class featuring mainstays like Williams-Sutton and Turner Brown, among others, will be important in filling the experience void.

The Pirates won’t be an overly young team, but they also don’t boast the experience last year’s squad did. The loaded schedule set in place is a sign of confidence in Godwin, the recruiting classes he’s assembled in his four years at the helm, and the direction he has in mind for the program.

Last year proved that baseball, more so than any other sport, can be a fickle beast. Expectations can be overwhelming at times, and a few injuries can derail a season.

However, as the saying goes, if you shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. The road back to the NCAA postseason will be a tough one. If ECU gets there, it will be ready.