Woody Peele

Woody's Ramblings
Thursday, February 13, 2014

By Woody Peele

Diamond Pirates aim to "go out with a bang"

East Carolina head baseball coach Billy Godwin leads his team onto the floor during halftime of the Pirates' home basketball win over Texas-San Antonio last Saturday. (Photo by Al Myatt. ©Bonesville.net)

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By Woody Peele
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Welcome to the old new conference just before the Pirates move into the new old conference.

Now while that sounds a little confusing, it's just the way things are going to be for East Carolina's baseball team for the 2014 season which is scheduled to open on Feb. 14 as the Pirates host James Madison.

The old conference, Conference USA, bears little resemblance to the league of recent years. Gone are such teams as Houston and Memphis. Joining the league are Charlotte, Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio.

A year from now, ECU will join the afore-mentioned Houston and Memphis, along with former C-USA member South Florida and current C-USA teams Tulane and Central Florida in the American Athletic Conference.

The Pirates are scheduled to open the current campaign on Friday with a three-game series against former Colonial Athletic Association foe James Madison. Friday's game at Clark-LeClair Field is scheduled to start at 3 p.m, followed by Saturday's at 2 p.m., and Sunday's at 1 p.m.

Of course, the weather forecast is for chilly conditions with possible precipitation – typical of opening weekend at ECU.

This year, East Carolina will play 30 games in the league, six more than in previous years. Two of the other 12 members of C-USA won't be on the slate, UAB and Louisiana Tech.

Pirate coach Billy Godwin explained that the schedule was set up by the league based on RPI ratings. So this season is going to be largely against strangers.

“We're in the minority now,” Godwin related, saying he said the same thing to some of the returning coaches at their annual meeting. “There are seven new teams and six are returning. So this year is going to be a great challenge.”

Thus far, the Pirate coach, who is in the final year of his contract, doesn't know a lot about the newcomers.

“There are some great programs,” he said. “Florida Atlantic, I know what they did in the regional last year.”

FAU came close to knocking off hosting North Carolina, which eventually advanced to the College World Series.

“They took Carolina right down to the wire,” Godwin said.

“UTSA was a regional team last year, so they should be good, too," Godwin added.

Godwin said he likes the new 30-game schedule, pointing to last year when five teams went into the final weeks all with a chance to finish in first place.

“This gives us a chance to separate ourselves from the others,” he said.

While Godwin says he isn't worried about his future with the Pirates, he does know that his team must get off to a better start to the season. The Pirates went into the conference with only an 11-10 record and promptly lost five of their first six league contests.

They picked up things after that, going 13-5 the rest of the way in the conference, but that wasn't enough to get them into the postseason as they finished 31-26 overall.

“We didn't end like we should have,” Godwin said. “Down the stretch, we played pretty well, but we couldn't overcome how poorly we played earlier in the year.”

Putting it all together early, however, may be difficult with a total of 16 newcomers on the roster. Also gone are four starters who either graduated or signed pro contracts. Departed are Chase McDonald (.299 batting average, 11 home runs, 56 hits and 46 runs batted in); Jack Reinheimer (.271, 2 HR, 60 H and 21 RBI); Bryan Bass (.302, 71 H, 15 RBI) and Jay Cannon (.249, 3 HR, 47 H, and 28 RBI).

The Pirates do return three position player from last season. Travis Watkins (.267) is expected to be back behind the plate, but Luke Lowery (.304) saw action there, too, last season and could step back into that position.

“I'm excited about this team,” Godwin said, “we've got competition everywhere.”

And he wants Lowery in the lineup for his power. If Lowery isn't behind the plate, he's likely to be at first base, where McDonald hung out before. Freshman Bryce Harman, who was drafted by the Washington Nationals, is another candidate for first base. If he isn't there, he could fill the designated hitter spot in the batting order.

Preseason C-USA Co-Player of the Year Drew Reynolds is the top candidate for second base, but could also see time in the DH slot. Reynolds is also the top closer on the mound, having claimed 14 saves last season in addition to going 3-2.

“He's very competitive,” Godwin said. “He's very smart about taking care of his arm. But playing him at second will open up another hitter into the lineup. He's a .300 hitter himself who can be in the lineup every day.”

At the shortstop position, it's largely up in the air.

“We brought in three that I like,” Godwin said. They include Kirk Morgan, Cameron Snow and Hunter Allen. The first two are freshman while
the latter is a junior college transfer.

“They are unknowns,” Godwin said. “The next thing we have to decide (is who gets the spot).”

Zach Houchins (.317, 60 hits, 5 homers) is slated to take the hot corner at third.

The outfield has a good amount of experience. Ben Fultz (.292) will be in left field, Garrett Brooks (.194) appears set for center, and hard-hitting transfer Ian Townsend in right.

“We're at least two deep in every position, and competition has got to make us better,” the coach said.

The mound staff is led by preseason All-America Jeff Hoffman (6-7 with a 3.02 ERA) who will be the Friday starter during league play. David Lucroy (4-2, 2.49) is expected to take the mound on Saturdays while Ryan Williams (6-2, 4.50) should take the mound on Sundays. Williams will be wearing the honored number 23 of the late coach Keith LeClair this season.

“Hoffman has to be good one pitch at a time,” Godwin said. “Last year, he threw 108 innings. You take out about 15 of them where he gave up a lot of runs and he was really good. For him to go from a midweek starter to being our Friday night starter was something. His maturity level has gone up and to have that kind of talent pitching on the weekend for us is great.”

Godwin said that picking up wins in the midweek and early season non-conference games is a necessity.

“They were our Achilles heel last year and we have to improve on that,” he said, pointing out that postseason play has a lot to do with those games, just as much as the conference contests.

Those games will be tough ones. Preseason No. 1 Virginia highlights the first road series of the year, the second weekend of the year. ECU will also face three other Atlantic Coast Conference schools in Wake Forest, N.C. State and North Carolina, the latter two also nationally-ranked in preseason polls.

Add to that three top opponents, Ohio State, Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh, which come in for the annual Keith LeClair Classic.

How much help the young players – 11 freshmen – will contribute still has to be seen, but Godwin is looking for some.

“The first thing for them is to compete and not worry about things they can't control,” the coach said. “They have to understand what it takes to be successful. There is a transition period and they have to trust us; we're going to get them there."

“This is my 29th year coaching,” Godwin continued, “and this group of freshmen are as good as any I've been around as far as wanting to play and wanting to learn.”

Of course, the primary objective for the team is to win the conference.

“We've got a lot of goals,” Godwin said, “three pages of them. But the first is to win the conference and go out (of C-USA) with a bang. And if we win this league, we have a chance to host a regional and get to a Super regional.”

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02/12/2014 07:20 PM