Godwin's Vision Takes Shape in First Year
When Cliff Godwin agreed to return to his alma mater, he was at the very destination he hoped to one day take the East Carolina baseball program. Godwin met with ECU’s Director of Athletics Jeff Compher in Omaha, Nebraska, at the College World Series and when the head-coaching job was offered to him, the local Snow Hill, N.C., native accepted. But not before making one thing clear to his future boss. “I told him that the only way I’ll take this position is if they were willing to compete a national level,” Godwin recounted his conversation with Compher during his introductory press conference last June, just weeks after helping take Ole Miss to the World Series as an assistant coach. “That's what we did when I played here and that's what we're going to do moving forward." Wearing the same No. 23 as ECU’s legendary skipper Keith LeClair — who Godwin played for at ECU from 1998-2001 and whose uniform number Godwin vowed to retired permanently once the Pirates make it to Omaha — Godwin has accomplished what he set out to do in just his first season as a collegiate head coach. The Pirates are 40-20 under Godwin’s tutelage and will make their first regional appearance since 2012 in Coral Gables, Fla., this weekend. Godwin’s peers took notice too when he was voted the American Conference’s Coach of the Year by the league’s eight head coaches. To further cement the impact he’s made, ECU won the American Conference Tournament championship in Clearwater, Fla., last week. It was the program’s first conference tournament title since 2002, which was LeClair’s final season as the Pirates’ skipper. “I told you guys on Day 1 that we weren’t going to put parameters on the team,” Godwin said. “There were a lot of low expectations around this community. I’m just happy for the guys because they bought in ... and they shared a vision from Day 1. It just goes to show you that when you believe in something and you work very hard at it, anything can happen.” About an hour before the start of the team’s NCAA Tournament selection show party at Buffalo Wild Wings on Monday, Godwin made his way around the room, greeting purple-and-gold clad fans and thanking them for their support. After an extended chat with the notorious left-field megaphone fan, Godwin told another group of fans, “I can’t wait to go back to the old No. 16,” which was his uniform number during his college playing days. Inheriting many of the same players from the Billy Godwin regime, Cliff Godwin has explored different ways to use them and instilled in them a different approach at the plate. Offensively, the team batting average improved 13 points (.283) from the previous season and seven of the Pirates’ eight returning position players enjoyed improved averages. Additionally, five players are batting at least .300 this season, led by senior Hunter Allen (.353), who has played with a torn ligament in his thumb for the bulk of the year. Another factor in the Pirates’ run in 2015 is how the pitching staff has recovered after losing Jeff Hoffman, who was the school’s highest draft pick ever (first round, ninth overall) among all of its programs, and its two best relievers (Ryan Williams and Drew Reynolds). Also, a contender to start in the weekend rotation, sophomore Davis Kirkpatrick, suffered a season-ending arm injury this winter. Although ECU’s collective ERA went up from 3.01 to 3.29 over the past year, this season’s weekend starters logged 70 more innings than last year’s top trio. The combination of Reid Love, Evan Kruczynski and Jacob Wolfe also averaged a 3.08 ERA, which is 49 points lower than what Hoffman, Love and David Lucroy accrued in 2014 (3.57). What all of these numbers boil down to is the Pirates earning different results this season despite much of the personnel staying the same. According to one of the team's senior leaders, the difference has been in the clubhouse. “Everybody is just pulling together,” Allen said, offering an explanation.” Because our team is so small, everybody has to be ready.” There is no better example of this togetherness, coupled with Godwin’s ability to press the right buttons, than Sunday’s American Conference Championship win over Houston. Utility player Luke Bolka, who has made seven more pitching appearances (13) than starts in the field (6) this season, was penned as the designed hitter in the No. 9 spot despite having no at-bats since pinch-hitting on April 26. But in the fifth inning, the move paid off in a big way when Bolka belted a go-ahead, two-out home run to change the game. “The guy’s a pitcher,” Allen said. “It’s just amazing to see somebody else succeed every day.” Godwin pointed at the Pirates’ extra-innings, rubber match win against Connecticut on April 19, which began a streak of six straight one-run victories, as the turning point in the season. Before that game in Storrs, Connecticut, ECU was 1-5 in one-run games. Since then, it is 9-0. “That was kind of the defining moment for our guys to have the confidence to know that they can win,” said Godwin. The Pirates are scheduled to fly down to Miami on Wednesday afternoon, a little less than two days ahead of their regional opener against Columbia on Friday at 1 p.m. And up until this point, all of the Pirates’ accomplishments have been discussed before the season and turned into team goals. Conference championship: check. Forty-win season: check. Super Regional appearance and the program’s first ever trip to Omaha: To be determined. Just like Keith LeClair, Cliff Godwin has always brought up the idea of going to the World Series — to his team and speaking publicly — and never once wavered in including Omaha from his team’s goals or the vision he has for the program. “We’re going to go to Omaha,” Godwin said when he was first introduced inside the Murphy Center last June. “We’re going to do that some day.” And whether or not those tickets are punched this summer, there’s no question that the ship is steered in the right direction.
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