Eyes on Omaha: ECU again hosts baseball regional

The Pirates’ path to the College World Series starts at home against Norfolk State

Coach Cliff Godwin and the East Carolina baseball team hopes this is the year the Pirates can break through and reach the College World Series. (Darron Cummings / AP Photo)

The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers have helped turn the phrase “trust the process” into an overused sports cliche.

But there’s some substance to it in the case of the East Carolina baseball team.

The Pirates have been making incremental progress toward their ultimate goal of getting to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, during the seven seasons since Cliff Godwin returned to coach at his alma mater.

They’ll look to take the next step in that direction Friday when they host Norfolk State in the opening round of an NCAA Tournament regional that also includes Charlotte and Maryland at Clark-LeClair Stadium in Greenville.

This is the third straight tournament in which ECU has been selected as a regional host. The knowledge gained from the first two in 2018 and 2019 is figuring prominently into the team’s preparation for this weekend’s event and the latest phase of the Pirates’ “process.”

Among the most important things Godwin has learned about this time of year is that it’s OK for his players to enjoy the moment, but not so much that they lose focus on the task at hand.

“You try not to get caught up in all the external stuff,” Godwin said shortly after learning of his team’s selection as the No. 13 overall seed nationally. “I want to enjoy with the guys what they have accomplished this season and what our previous teams have. That’s special to me. I’m an alum here, so I want to enjoy it more. But I want my guys to play our brand of baseball.

“I don’t want them to worry about who we’re playing. I want us to play great baseball in front of our great fan base.”

Concentrating on themselves rather than the opponent is a concept the Pirates learned two years ago when they got caught looking past what was perceived to be the weakest opponent in the four-team field, Quinnipiac.

ECU was able to battle back from the loser’s bracket to win the event. But because of subsequent weather delays, the strain of having to play extra games had on its pitching and some unfavorable scheduling by ESPN, the team had nothing left in the tank for its Super Regional matchup with Louisville.

Godwin said he won’t take anything for granted in his approach to this year’s tournament, especially when it comes to his pitching plans against Norfolk State.

Either American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year Gavin Williams (10-0, 1.32 ERA) or freshman left-hander Carson Whisenhunt (6-1, 3.52) figure to get the start against the Spartans, who qualified for their first NCAA Tournament despite a 25-26 record by winning the MEAC tournament last week.

“We’re going to look at Norfolk State and matchups and everything like that, plus we’ll make sure our pitchers feel good,” the former Pirates catcher said. “It’s tricky as a head coach. I’ve never been afraid, and the goal is to win the regional.

“You don’t host a regional or go into a regional without putting your best foot forward and give you an opportunity to win the regional.”

ECU (41-15) is the heavy favorite in a field that includes a Charlotte team it has already beaten this year and a Maryland squad that has yet to play anyone outside the Big Ten.

The Pirates’ advantage goes beyond a strong pitching staff and an offense that has combined for a .306 team batting average and features three players — including AAC Player of the Year Connor Norby — with a dozen or more homers.

For the first time since the 2020 season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, the stands at their home field will be at or near full capacity. And the atmosphere, in Godwin’s estimation, figures to be electric.

“It’s going to be nice,” said senior right-hander Cam Colmore, who is 6-1 with two saves and a 1.74 ERA in 28 games this season. “It’s been over a year since we’ve played in front of a packed Clark-LeClair Stadium, and it’s so special. It’s been so long. I can’t wait for Friday.”

Should ECU go on the win this weekend’s double-elimination tournament, it would advance to a Super Regional against the winner of the bracket hosted by Vanderbilt. That would be a difficult task, especially if the No. 4 national seed Commodores make it through as expected.

But that’s not something the Pirates are thinking about yet. It is, after all, a “process,” and there are no shortcuts on the road to success.

Or Omaha.

“Once you get to this part of the season, everybody’s good,” All-AAC outfielder/first baseman Thomas Francisco said. “Everybody is in control of their own destiny at this point, so if we go out there and play our best baseball, I really think we can make a deep run. We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year long.”