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Don’t understate the
significance of the Conference USA baseball tournament for East
Though the Pirates are
C-USA regular season champs and firmly locked into the NCAA tournament
field with – at worst – a No. 2 seed, they can greatly enhance their
postseason path with a deep run in Hattiesburg this week.
With a solid finish to a
solid season, East Carolina suddenly finds itself back in the
conversation for hosting an NCAA Regional. An appearance in the C-USA
Tournament title game could provide the finishing touches to a
An early exit almost
assuredly will keep the Pirates on the two-line and send them to someone
else’s home turf, a scenario that has never ended triumphantly for ECU.
2004 season should provide a
good reminder of the importance of the league tournament. The Pirates
sailed smoothly through the conference schedule and rocketed into the
national Top 10 and onto the cusp of a national seed in the NCAA
The latter would have kept
the Pirates home for a Super Regional series and significantly improved
their chances for reaching Omaha.
But by essentially
dismissing the importance of the C-USA tourney and exiting early, the
Pirates saw their national seeding evaporate and were handed one of the
lower No. 1 spots in the field. That meant a Super Regional trip to
hostile Sarge Frye Field to face a loaded South Carolina club that was
one of the favorites to win the national title.
That could have been
avoided had the Pirates performed with more purpose in the league
tournament. Winning it – and they were a heavy favorite to do so – would
have set the stage for a more favorable route to Omaha.
Though the stakes are
slightly different this year, they are no less significant.
Hosting, especially in
this region of the country, has almost become a prerequisite for
postseason advancement. The southeast has the largest concentration of
baseball powers, and home field advantage can be crucial considering the
NCAA’s focus on localizing the Regional round as much as possible.
With the current economy
and the focus on shrinking travel expenses, you can bet the NCAA will
make every effort to regionalize the opening weekend of the tournament
this year. The last thing the Pirates want is a trip to Chapel Hill
where an elite pitching staff awaits.
If the Pirates can make
enough noise to earn a top seed, they will play the first weekend on a
field where they’ve posted a 28-7 record in 2009. It also will provide
Pirates coach Billy Godwin with the flexibility to backload his pitching
rotation given the more favorable opening match-up.
Neither is a possibility
if the Pirates sink in Hattiesburg.
The good news is the ECU
pitching staff could be peaking at the right moment. Friday starter
Chris Heston (7-0, 3.44 ERA) has been consistent all season, and Seth
Maness (9-0, 3.99 ERA) has been lights out since he dominated Rice on
Brad Mincey and Kevin
Brandt have also emerged as quality starters who also are capable of
providing spot relief.
infielders Ryan Wood and Dustin Harrington have found a power surge at
the plate, providing the Pirates with base-clearing pop in unlikely
spots in the batting order. And though no one will accuse the Pirates of
being outstanding defensively, there at least has been some improvement
Those factors, coupled
with the top seed in the C-USA tournament, should map a favorable course
for a good run in Hattiesburg. Potential breakdowns both mentally and
with execution now loom as the Pirates’ biggest obstacle to hosting an
Though some schools have
the luxury of taking their conference tournament lightly, East Carolina
doesn’t have that option. The Pirates must succeed in Hattiesburg if
they want a Regional to come to Greenville.
They simply can’t afford
to follow the blueprint from 2004.