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View from the 'ville
Thursday, March 4, 2010

By Al Myatt

Solid field for LeClair Classic

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

The seventh annual Keith LeClair Classic is coming up this weekend and will honor the former East Carolina baseball coach who passed away in 2006 from Lou Gehrig's disease.

Pirates coach Billy Godwin was an assistant at ECU the spring before LeClair's death and has put together another solid field that will include Illinois, West Virginia and LeClair's alma mater, Western Carolina, for this year's event.

LeClair compiled a record of 212-96-1 with the Pirates from 1998 to 2002 that included four berths in the NCAA Tournament in five seasons. ECU won the Conference USA Tournament in Kinston in 2002 although LeClair was incapacitated at the time.

LeClair watched a 4-0 win over Houston in the 2002 C-USA tourney final from a van parked in foul territory adjacent to Grainger Stadium's right field as assistant Kevin McMullan, now a valuable staff member in the program at Virginia, effectively guided the Pirates.

Godwin said an appearance by Lynn LeClair, the coach's wife, has been confirmed for Saturday. Formal plans to recognize the LeClair family are to be completed this morning.

The tournament schedule sends Western Carolina against West Virginia in the opener at 1 p.m. on Friday. ECU plays Illinois in the following game at 5 p.m.

Illinois faces Western Carolina at 11 a.m. on Saturday and the Pirates will play West Virginia at 3 p.m. On Sunday, West Virginia and Illinois meet at 10 a.m. with ECU taking on Western Carolina at 2 p.m.

Cost of a three-day pass for the classic is $25 for adults and $15 for youth.

LeClair was driven by the goal of getting the ECU program to the College World Series in Omaha.

Godwin has a similar goal but he wants to approach it on a game by game basis. That starts with Illinois on Friday.

"Certainly the major goal is to play in Omaha but I think there's a process to getting there," Godwin said. "The number one process is to build a resume good enough to get into the tournament. We don't overlook that — what it's going to take to qualify. Then we take it to a step further and we talk about building a resume that puts us with a chance to host.

" ... I've said it over and over, I don't know if we'd have beaten South Carolina last year (in the Greenville regional championship) if that game is in Columbia because we realize how important it is to be at home. ... We talk to our kids about building a resume one day at a time and then let that body of work at the end of the year speak for itself."

Godwin doesn't rely on the strength of Conference USA alone in putting the ECU schedule together. The competitiveness of the region is the reason why.

"That's why I schedule the way I do, because you've got to go out and knock heads and at the end of the year people look back and go, 'They played a good schedule and they won a lot of quality games against some good people,' " Godwin said. "Our league allows us to do that because of the RPI (ratings power index), but I think you've also got to step out of that bubble because we're in such a great baseball region.

"It's probably the most competitive region to host if you look at it, with South Carolina, Clemson, Virginia, North Carolina. North Carolina State has hosted and then Coastal Carolina. You look at the history of it. It's a competitive region to host and they're not going to give but so many regional bids to certain areas of the country."

The current USA Today coaches poll supports Godwin's contention about the region's strength. Virginia is ranked No. 2, Clemson is No. 9, Coastal Carolina is No. 10, North Carolina is No. 12, the Pirates are No. 21 and South Carolina is No. 23.

The immediate challenge, the Fighting Illini, the Pirates' Friday opponent, have a lot of hitters back.

"They've got seven of their top eight hitters back," said the Pirates coach. "This is a team that hit about .320 last year. They went to LSU and beat LSU two out of three."

Indeed, the Illini spent March 6-8 last season in Baton Rouge, taking the rubber game with the Bayou Bengals, 6-2. Like ECU's Jared Avchen, Illinois' catcher Aaron Johnson was named to the watch list for the Johnny Bench Award this week. Illinois comes to Greenville with a 1-2 record, having beaten Notre Dame in its opener before falling to South Florida and St. John's.

West Virginia started its season with three games in Conway, SC, and four more in Florida. The Mountaineers are 2-5 following an 18-14 win over Purdue on Monday. WVU is led by junior shortstop Jedd Gyorko, the Big East preseason player of the year who hit .421 with eight homers and 58 RBIs last season.

The Catamounts will bring the best record in the field (6-1) to Greenville. Their Tuesday game with Georgia Tech was canceled due to unsuitable weather conditions.

The Mother Nature factor

Conditions in general have not been favorable for baseball since preseason practice got started in January. ECU rescheduled a Tuesday game at High Point for Wednesday only to get snowed out on the make-up date. It was to have been the Pirates' first road game of 2010. ECU makes a West Coast swing next week with games at Cal State-Northridge and Pepperdine.

The advance forecast is calling for 60 degrees on Sunday of the LeClair event.

"I've got my sun tan lotion and my sun block out," Godwin said. "We haven't seen 60 in I don't know when."

Fans turn out in force

Despite less than ideal weather conditions, the Pirates have gotten outstanding fan support. ECU has averaged 4,272 in attendance for its seven home dates, which ranks 11th nationally. LSU is first with an average of 10,580 fans per home game and South Carolina is second at 7,072.

"The one thing that excites me about the crowds we've had is that you have those crowds when you're playing N.C. State or North Carolina," Godwin said. "What excited me is that it was all baseball driven. It wasn't in-state rival mentality. It was because there were good teams on the field playing and baseball fans wanted to come see that."

The Pirates have had three home dates with Virginia and three at home with South Carolina as well as a home game with Old Dominion.

New tournament format

Nine teams in Conference USA have baseball programs and the top six of those will make the field for the league tournament, May 26-30, at Houston. Previously, eight teams qualified for the C-USA Tournament.

"In the past, one team has not gone to the tournament," Godwin said. "Now it will be three."

The qualifying teams will be divided into a pair of three-team pools. Each pool winner will advance to the C-USA Tournament championship game.

"I think there are some advantages to it because every team is guaranteed three games," Godwin said. "In the old format, you could just play two if you dumped. ... The ACC does this format to some degree. You get an extra game guaranteed to you if you make the tournament, which sometimes that one win in a league like ours can help you build that resume (for NCAA Tournament selection consideration).

"You're going to have that opportunity in this format. In the old format, you could just play two and go home."

The Pirates have a 5-1 record at Houston since Godwin has been at ECU.

"It's a nice facility," Godwin said. "The University of Houston has always done a first class job of everything I've seen them do. It's a good venue. Houston's a good town."

The Pirates are scheduled to play a three-game series with each C-USA program starting with Tulane in Greenville on April 2. Houston, Marshall, Memphis, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB and Central Florida also compete in baseball.

E-mail Al Myatt

Al Myatt Archives

03/04/2010 02:07 AM


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