(Photo: ECU SID)
Coffee and hot chocolate ought to be
brisk sellers as East Carolina opens its 2009 baseball season at 3 p.m.
this afternoon at Clark-LeClair Stadium against Monmouth.
Temperatures are expected to be in the
mid-40's when sophomore right-hander Seth Maness delivers the first
pitch with the wind chill factor making it feel like the upper 30's.
Maness was 9-2 as a freshman with a
3.27 earned run average and notched 81 strikeouts with just 20 walks in
98 1/3 innings pitched. The Southern Pines Pinecrest product was named
Conference USA preseason pitcher of the year and was selected to five
preseason All-America teams.
Maness was a first-team All C-USA
choice last season and was the league's freshman of the year.
Pirate coach Billy Godwin plans to
start right-hander Chris Heston, a transfer from Seminole Community
College, in the second game of the series at 2 p.m. on Saturday, and
Mike Anderson, who redshirted during the 2008 season as he recovered
from Tommy John surgery, gets the nod on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Consistency from the pitching staff
will be a vital factor as the Pirates seek their tenth berth in the NCAA
Tournament in the last 11 seasons.
"I think the number one question with
any program heading into the start of a season is pitching," Godwin
said. "I feel good about the pitchers we return, especially the four
freshmen from last year, who combined for 18 wins.
"Our pitching staff is very talented,
but if there is a concern that I have right now, it would be their youth
and inexperience. If we can get three or four of our freshman to step up
the way Seth Maness, Sthil Sowers, Seth Simmons and Brad Mincey did last
year, it could be a very special season for this club."
Very special in Pirate terms involves
the longtime program goal of reaching the College World Series in Omaha.
Among the key losses from the 2008 team that went 42-21 and reached the
final of the Conway, SC, regional are center fielder Harrison Eldridge,
who hit a team high .352, and catcher Corey Kemp who launched a
team-best 18 home runs.
"You don't ever replace the guys you
lose," Godwin said. "I remember a couple of years ago people asking me
the same thing about Jake Smith and Adam Witter in replacing their
power. Well, the following year we led Conference USA in home runs and
were in the top two in almost every offensive category.
"Guys step up and emerge out of the
shadows. Who is it going to be this year? We really don't know, but we
have guys who are poised to step in and show what they can do. You can't
replace good players. You will miss them, but you just roll guys over
and prepare them to step in and fill the void. This year we think Trent
Ashcraft, Jared Avchen, Trent Whitehead, Zach Wright and Bobby Fowler
are the guys that can step in everyday."
Ashcraft is projected to take over in
center field and Avchen, another transfer from Seminole Community
College, appears to be Kemp's successor behind the plate.
The infield is experienced with Brandon
Henderson at first base, Ryan Wood at second, Dustin Harrington at
shortstop and Drew Schieber at third. Stephen Batts, a preseason
All-Conference USA selection with a .330 career average, will be in left
field. Left-handed swinging Kyle Roller, who has 23 career homers, is
slated for designated hitter duty.
"The depth that we have in our
positional players is our biggest strength," Godwin said. "We have a
solid corps of guys returning that have put up proven numbers year in
and year out. ... Overall, the depth of our position players and
experience will go a long way in helping this club reach its potential."
Last season, the Pirates started
slowly. ECU dropped two of three in the season opening series at
then-No. 2 South Carolina and lost a midweek contest at Elon. The
Pirates fell in the opener of a three-game set with the same Monmouth
program that's in Greenville this weekend to stand at an inauspicious
ECU responded to the early adversity
with a 13-game winning streak to get the season turned around.
The Pirates have No. 13 Olklahoma State
and No. 12 UCLA at home before getting into C-USA play, which should
give Godwin's club the opportunity to move up frpm their current No. 27
spot in the NCBWA poll.
"Once again we have been able to put
together another great schedule," said Godwin. "Our 35 home games will
allow our fans to see some of the top college baseball programs both
regionally and nationally. Our players came to ECU to play on a national
stage, and with the tough competition in Conference USA and our
non-conference schedule, they will be able to do just that on a weekly
"Our goals and standards for the
program are high, and in order to be the best you have to play the best
teams year in and year out. If you look at this year's schedule, we have
tackled that challenge with a tough non-conference slate. We have
nationally-ranked Oklahoma State in our LeClair Classic along with
perennial NCAA participant St. John's and College of Charleston.
Preseason Top 25 UCLA will be coming in on a return trip from two years
ago and we have a tough three-game series against Louisiana-Lafayette in
"We have all those games in addition to
playing the great level of competition that we have instate with North
Carolina, N.C. State, UNC-Wilmington and Elon, all NCAA Regional teams
over the past few years. Our league schedule is once again packed with
tough competition in Rice, Southern Miss, Houston and Tulane, who were
all regional teams last year to go along with UCF, UAB, Marshall and
Memphis. I think you will be hard pressed to look anywhere in the
country and find a better schedule than ours."
The Pirates appear capable of measuring
up to their challenging schedule and figure to be in the thick of things
as cold conditions in February yield to warmer days this spring.