Godwin a catalyst for young East Carolina team

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS FIRST PITCH: Head coach Cliff Godwin has helped turn around a lackluster Pirate team and now stands on the cusp of a Super Regional.

FIRST PITCH: Head coach Cliff Godwin has helped turn around a lackluster Pirate team and now stands on the cusp of a Super Regional.

GREENVILLE — Cliff Godwin gathered his team in right field back in mid-February.

The first year head coach of East Carolina’s baseball team had just started his coaching career at his alma mater with an unceremonious sweep at the hands of the then-No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers.

An aggregate score of 16-5 in a weekend that many thought would offer a glimpse into what was to come created more doubt than affirmation that the Pirates would regain their footing after years of underachievement under former manager Billy Godwin.

“We played one of the best teams in the country and we competed hard in two of the three games,” Godwin said following the weekend sweep to the Cavaliers. “We know that we can play with those guys.”

It’s called “coach speak” and it’s all too common. After all, what else was a new head coach trying to win over both the hungry Greenville fans and his adopted players supposed to say?

He could very well have been the only person in attendance for all three losses that February weekend who believed his team could compete with the best clubs in the country.

It’s the end of May now and Godwin’s team is doing what seemed unlikely at the beginning of the season; it’s still playing baseball.

Not only is his team getting ready for the regional weekend at the NCAA tournament, the Pirates boast a conference crown thanks to their torrid run through the American Athletic Conference tournament, one in which ECU never lost a game.

With their first conference tournament title since 2002, an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament was guaranteed to the Pirates, though it was just a consolation for a team that was already projected to make it regardless.

Also take into consideration that the Pirates have 40 wins for the first time since 2011 and ECU hasn’t seen NCAA postseason play since 2012.

Years of underachievement led up to this moment and now the Pirates, with a favorite son at the helm, have set their course towards Omaha, Neb., home of the College World Series. It’s the same message Godwin has preached since first accepting the job; Omaha or bust.

A championship seems unlikely in his first year with a roster that lacks depth. Then again, who could’ve predicted the route Godwin and his team took to get to this point. ECU was one win away from claiming the regular season conference title before earning it in tournament play.

The skipper maybe could have predicted it, but even if it was said, it would have likely been written off. He was taking over a 33-win ball club that had lost a multitude of talent thanks to graduation and the MLB draft.

Ace Jeff Hoffman was selected ninth overall in the draft. Workhorse pitcher Ryan Williams and third baseman Zach Houchins were taken as well. Closer and second baseman Drew Reynolds graduated and a chunk of ECU’s experience departed along with them.

Godwin inherited a pantry that had been raided. He returned five position starters and two starting pitchers.

Instead of taking the year to rebuild or reload, Godwin, known for his offensive prowess during his time as the hitting coach at Old Miss, molded his group of players and found improvement, bridging the gap between the future and the present.

Take senior shortstop and team co-captain Hunter Allen for example. Last season, he was known more as a guy who could lay down a sacrifice bunt when needed, more so than an offensive threat. He finished with an impressive .308 average mostly in the bottom of the lineup.

Now, he’s leading the team with a .353 average in the leadoff spot and is fresh off of being named the conference tournament’s Most Outstanding Player thanks to his 9-for-18 performance.

Godwin has not only helped restock the pantry, he’s made the players in it better. He’s created a winning culture in just five months.

So now it seems peculiar to look back on the Pirates’ opening series sweep to Virginia. And perhaps with a reflection we can better understand where a season that seemed unlikely really began.

“We need to get our stuff together and play better,” Godwin said then. “We’re never going to accept losing around here.”

The future is bright for ECU and if anyone can help restore the tradition-rich program to its spot near the top of the baseball world, its Godwin who was a key part of some of the program’s most successful teams.

He was an All-American catcher under legendary skipper Keith LeClair and served as a key cog in a three-year stretch that saw ECU win no less than 46 games while being named a top seed in the Regionals from 1999-2001.

He dons the No. 23 jersey that LeClair wore during his managerial days in Greenville before succumbing to ALS in 2006. His former catcher has since taken over the fabled jersey number while leading the program back to the heights accomplished under LeClair.

“It is an honor to be in a position to lead the East Carolina baseball program and serve my alma mater,” Godwin said. “I consider it a privilege to carry on coach LeClair’s legacy and represent not only the guys I played with, but all former Pirates who have made this a special place.”

Godwin’s story hasn’t be written yet and it’s far too early to pen his name into the giants of ECU baseball history.

One thing has become abundantly clear, though. After his inaugural campaign, his career has gotten of to a strong start and his team has come a long way since mid-February.