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View from the 'ville
Thursday, January 11, 2007

By Al Myatt

Godwin banking on depth, newcomers

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

East Carolina didn't make the NCAA baseball tournament field in 2006 for the first time since 1998. Second-year coach Billy Godwin is the first to say that isn't an acceptable level of performance for the Pirates.

"With the facilities and interest we've got here and the great support we have from the administration, there's no reason East Carolina is not one of the best baseball programs in the country," Godwin said. "That's what our goal is, to get our program back to where it belongs and on track to compete year in and year out for regionals, super regionals and the opportunity to go to Omaha."

The Pirates set about improving on a 33-26 record in Godwin's first season at ECU with the start of official practice on Wednesday. Godwin's approach is to take it slow in preparing his club for the most challenging schedule in history.

"The biggest focus is not to try to do too much," Godwin said. "We just come in and try to have a pretty basic practice so the guys can get their legs under them — just throw and go through the regular standard routine of fielding routine balls, a regular round of batting practice and that type of stuff."

Godwin avoids the temptation of trying to do too much too early although the opener with Liberty at home on Feb.9 at 3 p.m. is less than a month away.

"I think we get excited as coaches sometimes and go out there and do everything in the first day," Godwin said. "As I was looking through some of the practice plans I've had over the last seven years, I've always treated the first two or three days just to get our players acclimated to being back on the field and doing the basic fundamental things."

At the outset of his coaching career, Godwin worked as an assistant at North Carolina Wesleyan to Mike Fox, who guided North Carolina to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament last year. As head coach at Enfield Academy in 1994, he directed his team to the North Carolina Independent School state championship. He went on to rebuild the program at Louisburg College.

"Fundamentals are fundamentals," Godwin said. "They don't change. What changes is the level of player you work with. I run practice the way that had been ingrained in me back when I coached at Wesleyan with Coach Fox. The general structure of practice isn't much different here. The difference here is that we have a better baseball player."

There will be a lot of new players in Pirate purple this season, as well as many returnees who have impressed the ECU coach with their progress during fall workouts.

"We brought in 13 new players with four junior college transfers in that group and some very talented freshmen," Godwin said. "One of the things we were really, really pleased with is we've got a good core of kids coming back who were great contributors here last year.

"We were probably more impressed with how much better they were in our fall setting. What that gives us, not that we thought they were bad, with the kids we brought in is a tremendous amount of depth. That's pretty exciting. One thing that stands out in my mind is how much better the players who were in the program last year are this year."

One position void of lettermen is catcher, where Jake Smith, the Johnny Bench Award winner, and also Adam Witter, who left ECU and hit for the cycle in the minor league single game performance of the year, accounted for 27 home runs in the batting order last season.

"Any time you lose the national catcher of the year, you're concerned, but after going through fall, we're really not," Godwin said.

ECU has four new catchers. David Forbes, a senior transfer from Campbell who played at Greenville Rose, looks more than capable of filling the catching void.

"He brings us a lot of experience," Godwin said. "He can really throw and we think he handles our staff and can control the running game very well. He's got power, so we feel good with him."

Corey Kemp is a transfer from Young Harris Junior College who also had a good fall catching for the Pirates. Freshman Bobby Fowler may be the catcher of the future for ECU and freshman Austin Homan also has shown promise.

The weekend pitching rotation shapes up at this point to include T.J. Hose, left-hander Dustin Sasser and lefty Jeff Ostrander. Godwin plans to move Shane Mathews from weekend starting assignments into a closer's role.

"That's our premise going into the season," Godwin said. "Of course, that can change and it did last year with Brody Taylor getting into the mix."

Harrison Eldridge will move from right field to center and is expected to lead off for ECU after hitting .336 last year as a sophomore. Another Young Harris juco product, Trent Ashcraft, has impressed Godwin with his running ability. Dale Mollenhauer, who hit .292 with seven homers in 2006, while playing shortstop, is a prototypical No. 2 hitter, according to Godwin.

"We've got some guys at the top of the order who can run and can get on and create some havoc on the bases," said the Pirates coach.

Brandon Henderson, who hit .326 in '06, Stephen Batts (.336), Ryan Tousley (.285) and Jake Dean (.311) all played a lot last season and hit well.

"We've got guys in the middle of the order who can drive in runs," Godwin said. "The depth of this club is really intriguing. I can see right now on any given day coming to the park with 13 or 14 legitimate position players. We've got left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. We'll be able to do some matching up and bring guys off the bench.

"We'll put our kids in the best situation we think we can to win."

Strength of schedule should be no problem for a program looking to return to the NCAA Tournament after a year's absence. The Pirates play 28 games against 11 clubs who were in the NCAA field last season. Three of those foes — North Carolina, Cal State Fullerton and Rice — made it all the way to Omaha. The Owls enter 2007 ranked No. 1 in the Collegiate Baseball poll.

"I told the players that's what we want," Godwin said. "If we want to be the best, we've got to play the best. We've certainly got the opportunity if we want to make an impact and go out and compete every day against some of the most elite teams in the country."

After returning from a series at UCLA on Feb. 16-18, the Pirates have 21 straight home games. The Pirates were 28-9 at home last season, but just 4-15 on the road. ECU is scheduled to play a school record 38 games on Lewis Field at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

Improvement sufficient to earn an NCAA berth is the objective.

"Not making the NCAA Tournament wasn't acceptable to me and the standards of our program," said Godwin, who hopes to maintain the track record he established at Louisburg for second year surges.

"It's a similar situation to when I was there in Louisburg," he said. "The first year I went in there, we finished fourth in the league and just had an O.K. year. Real quickly we got it back to where we were in the top 10 in the country."

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02/23/2007 12:29:02 AM


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