Coming off a year where the East Carolina baseball team made its second consecutive NCAA Regional appearance (ninth in the last 10 years) and reached the Conway Regional Finals, fourth-year head coach Billy Godwin once again will look to steer the Pirate ship into post-season play.
With the loss of six seniors and one junior from last year’s squad that posted its second consecutive 40-win season (42-21), the Pirates return 22 lettermen to go along with 13 newcomers and look to take the next step of reaching their goal of the College World Series.
The 2009 Pirates will play 35 games in Lewis Field at Clark-LeClair Stadium, which includes 18 of its first 22 games at home, as well as the Sixth Annual Keith LeClair Classic.
Nineteen teams on this year’s docket recorded 30 or more wins a season ago with nine of them topping the 40-win plateau; 11 schools earned a bid to participate in the NCAA Regional in 2008 with a pair making it to the College World Series (North Carolina and Rice), while four finished ranked in the Baseball America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) Top 25 polls.
The Pirates will open the 2009 campaign on Friday, Feb. 20 against Monmouth in a three-game tilt and will stay home for their next five games, which includes a midweek match-up with Oklahoma State (Feb. 26), the LeClair Classic (Feb. 27-Mar. 1) and Old Dominion (Mar. 3).
Conference USA play opens March 20 for the Pirates when they welcome league foe UCF to town for a three-game series. Other C-USA schools making the trek to Greenville in 2009 include 2008 College World Series participant and C-USA regular season champion Rice (Apr. 10-12), Southern Miss (Apr. 24-26) and Memphis (May 14-16).
League road trips include Marshall (Mar. 27-29), UAB (Apr. 3-5), Tulane (Apr. 17-19) and 2008 C-USA Tournament Champion Houston (May 8-10).
ECU’s home non-conference schedule is highlighted by the annual Keith LeClair Classic that pits the Pirates against St. John’s (Feb. 27), Oklahoma State (Feb. 28) and College of Charleston (Mar. 1). Also scheduled for weekend series’ in Greenville are 2008 NCAA Regional participants UCLA (Mar. 13-15) and Louisiana-Lafayette (May 1-3), while UNC-Asheville (Mar. 10-11) comes to town for a pair of weekday contests.
The Pirates will have a home-and-home series against Campbell (Mar. 24 and Apr. 14), Elon (Mar. 28, Apr. 21 and 28), North Carolina (Apr. 7 and 22), N.C. State (Apr. 1 and 15) and UNC-Wilmington (Mar. 25, Apr. 8 and May 12), while also matching up against Norfolk State (Mar. 18). Their lone non-conference weekend trip takes them to Statesboro, Ga. to participate in Georgia Southern’s annual baseball tournament with games against Le Moyne (Mar. 6), Indiana (Mar. 7) and the Eagles (Mar. 8).
All-American Seth Maness will get the nod as the Friday night starter when the season opens on Feb. 20. The sophomore ace, who posted a 9-2 record with a 3.27 ERA and 81 strikeouts to just 20 walks in 98.1 innings on his way to seven overall All-America teams a year ago, was named C-USA Preseason Pitcher-of-the-Year and became the third Pirate in school history to be selected to the Brooks Wallace Player-of-the-Year Award Preseason Watch List. In addition to his C-USA preseason honors, Maness has been selected to five preseason All-America squads: Sporting News (Collegiate Team), NCBWA (second-team), Ping!Baseball (second-team), Louisville Slugger/Collegiate Baseball (third-team), Recruitingcloser.com (third-team) and CollegeBaseballInsider.com (honorable mention).
Junior College transfer Chris Heston has the inside edge as the Saturday guy heading into the season. The right-hander from Seminole Community College brings a wealth of experience to the mound, where he started 16-of-28 career games posting an 8-9 record fanning 88 hitters in 107 2/3 innings of work with a 4.76 ERA.
Battling for the final weekend spot is a pair of sophomore right-handers in Mike Anderson and Sthil Sowers. Anderson, one of four team captains, returns to the mound after sitting out the entire 2008 season following Tommy John surgery. As a true freshman, he made six starts posting a 1-1 record with 13 punch outs in 24.0 innings. Just like Anderson, Sowers brings experience to the weekend rotation after making 10 starts in 15 appearances a year ago as a true freshman. The Grifton, N.C. native posted a 4-4 record, notched one save and fanned 37 while walking 20 in 58.0 innings. Last year he picked up Conference USA Pitcher-of-the-Week honors after tossing a complete game against in-state rival and No. 27 UNC Wilmington.
Sophomore Seth Simmons and senior Ryan Wood will compete for the closer’s role as the season approaches. Simmons brings a lot of experience to the bullpen after appearing in 27 games as a true freshman where he was 2-0 with a pair of saves, 43 strikeouts and 17 walks in 34.0 innings. Wood, who is the starting second baseman, will look to make his collegiate debut on the mound this spring.
A healthy Bailey Daniels has pitching coach Bill Jarman excited about his set-up men. Penciled in as the closer last season, Daniels was limited in action due to a preseason injury, but the Wanchese, N.C. native has put that behind him and will be counted on as the top set-up man for Simmons and Wood. A year ago he appeared in just 15 games, all out of the pen, where he posted a 1-0 ledger with 11 strikeouts and six walks.
Sophomore utility pitcher Brad Mincey will battle for late innings as well as seeing spot start action during the midweek. A year ago he appeared in 27 games with a pair of starts on his way to a 3-3 record. The right-hander registered one of ECU’s six saves on the season, while striking out 36 and walking 20 in 56.0 innings.
Also seeing action out of the bullpen will be a pair of freshman lefties in Kevin Brandt (Fuquay Varina, N.C.) and Mark Wilder (Greenville, N.C.).CATCHERS
Looking to fill the void from the departure of all-american and 2008 C-USA Player-of-the-Year Corey Kemp will be a trio of catchers. Heading into the season the starting nod is still up for grabs between junior college transfer Jared Avchen and sophomore Bobby Fowler.
Avchen comes to ECU after spending his freshman year at the University of Alabama and last year at Seminole Community College (teammate of Chris Hesston). The Palm Bay, Fla. native started 41-of-44 games behind the dish where he batted .320 (47-for-147) with eight home runs, 38 RBI and 31 runs scored.
During his freshman season, Fowler gained valuable experience appearing in 25 games (seven starts) mostly in the late innings as a pinch runner.
True freshman Zach Wright (Goldsboro, N.C.) will also be in the mix to see action behind the plate.FIRST BASE
Senior Brandon Henderson once again has locked up the starting nod at first base for the ’09 season. In 2008, the Alpharetta, Ga. native set career-highs in almost every offensive category including batting average (.347), home runs (11), RBI (52), runs (52), hits (85), double’s (18) and slugging percentage (.555). The left-handed fielding first basemen started all 61 games he played and led the Pirates with 503 put outs, which ranks sixth on ECU’s single-season charts. One of four team captains this year, Henderson batted .368 (7-for-19) with two home runs, five RBI and collected 15 total bases (fourth most in regional play) on his way to NCAA All-Regional honors in 2008. He has been named preseason first-team All C-USA by Rivals.com and SEBaseball.com.
Backing up Henderson at first will be 2008 All C-USA Tournament selection Kyle Roller. The left-handed power slugger blasted a career-best 12 home runs, with 50 RBI, 11 doubles, while scoring 42 runs and batting .299. Although Roller could see action at first, his primary role this season will once again be as the Pirates top designated hitter.MIDDLE INFIELD
Senior Ryan Wood and sophomore Dustin Harrington both return as the starting middle infielders in 2009. Wood, a rangy and athletic second baseman, gets the nod at second base. As a junior he batted .306, while setting career-highs in home runs (13), RBI (51), hits (76), runs (70), doubles (10) and stolen bases (16). For the first time in his collegiate career, Wood will compete for the closer’s role on the Pirates pitching staff. He has picked up a pair of preseason C-USA honors from Baseball America (first-team) and SEBaseball.com (first-team) as a utility player.
Harrington, who earned C-USA All-Freshman Team honors in 2008, started 56-of-59 games played with 35 starts coming at short. The hard-nosed middle infielder, who batted .320 a year ago with four home runs and 42 RBI, is a solid defensive infielder with a strong and accurate arm that can hit for average and power.
Junior Broc Sutton is very sound defensively with an accurate throwing range to first from any of the infield positions. In the batter’s box, the Edenton, N.C. native is a tough left-handed hitter that can spray the ball all over the field.
Cameron Freeman, who played in seven games as a true freshman, is versatile enough play either of the middle infield positions, as well as third base and will be counted on along with freshman Brett Bowers (Fairfax, Va.) to backup both Wood and Harrington.THIRD BASE
As the Pirates top utility man, senior Drew Schieber will be patrolling the hot corner in 2009. The two-time team captain was limited in action last season with a back injury but still managed to bat .319 with two home runs and 18 RBI. Schieber, who was awarded the Pirates honorary No. 23 jersey in 2008, started all 26 games played with 15 of those coming at third.
True freshman Corey Thompson could see a lot of action at third as Schieber’s top back-up. The Apex, N.C. native is a skilled infielder that can hit the ball to all fields and has shown the ability to hit for power.OUTFIELD
Senior Trent Ashcraft will look to fill the void at center replacing two-time first-team All C-USA selection Harrison Eldridge. Ashcraft, who saw action in 40 games a year ago with five starts, is expected to be the table setter for Godwin’s lineup when Feb. 20 rolls around. The left-handed speedster made a huge impact this summer playing for the Hyannis Mets in the Cape Cod League where he batted .327 with eight RBI, 21 runs and 11 stolen bases. For his play he was selected to participate in the Under Armour All-Star game and was named to the 2008 All-Cape Cod League Team.
A pair of sophomore’s in Trent Whitehead and Devin Harris will battle for the right field position vacated by two-time All-NCAA Regional performer Jamie Ray. Last year Whitehead started 22-of-51 games where he batted .273 with three home runs, 15 RBI and swiped five bases. The Washington, N.C. native most likely will be penciled in at the nine-hole of the order giving the Pirates a pair of speedsters at the top and the bottom of the lineup. Harris, who played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman, batted just .167 with two RBI, but his ability to hit for power and his speed has put him in a position to play every day. Harris could also see action as a designated hitter, backing up Roller.
Returning to left field will be 2008 All C-USA performer Stephen Batts, where he made 32 of his 63 starts last season. Just like a majority of ECU’s returning starters, Batts recorded career-highs in home runs (10), hits (80), runs (65) and stolen bases (14) while batting .333 with 13 doubles. One of four team captains in 2009, Batts has picked up preseason first-team All C-USA honors by the league coaches, as well as Rivals.com and SEBaseball.com.
Adding depth in the outfield will be sophomore Austin Homan along with junior Jonathan Ratledge and freshman Phillip Clark (Norfolk, Va.). Ratledge could also candidate to see time at designated hitter.