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TAB: Starting battery has Pirates 'charged up'

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By Ronnie Woodward
The Daily Reflector

Friday, February 17, 2017

East Carolina baseball’s nine seniors all have different stories, yet they want to leave ECU with the same legacy. Their clear goal is for this season to end in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series.

It is the same goal of so many previous Pirate teams, but this time it seems as realistic as ever as ECU comes in with the school’s all-time best preseason ranking of No. 6 by Baseball America.

Leading the senior class for Game 1 today in the opening series at Mississippi is the Pirates’ starting battery of preseason All-American pitcher Evan Kruczynski and fifth-year catcher Travis Watkins. The anticipated matchup between the talented Rebels from the Southeastern Conference and the Pirates, who a year ago won an NCAA super regional game for the first time in school history, is one of the marquee series in college baseball’s first weekend.

After ECU bats in the top of the first inning, it will be the 6-foot-4, left-handed Kruczynski taking the pitcher’s mound and delivering ECU’s first pitch to a familiar face in Watkins, who signed with the Pirates late in 2011 as a senior at Concord’s Cox Mill High School.

“To have the senior leadership that we have ...  it’s unheard of in college baseball,” said Kruczynski, who will be complemented by another senior lefty in Jacob Wolfe to form two-thirds of the team’s weekend starting rotation. “The fact that we’ve been together for so long and been with coach Cliff Godwin now for three years, it really helps with the culture that we have in this program. Now with all the freshmen, we instilled that in them as soon as they stepped on campus in the summer and I feel like we are more ahead of schedule than we were last year and the year before.”

The freshmen are plenty talented and they include the promising pitching trio of Trey Benton, Jake Agnos and Tyler Smith. Offensively, D.H. Conley High School product Bryant Packard is in line for a starting spot and Spencer Brickhouse has taken over at first base since senior Bryce Harman hurt his wrist two weeks ago.

Sophomore outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton also is a key cog and is set to start as the team’s leadoff hitter, but the backbone of this squad remains with the tight-knit senior class.

Kruczynski was the winning pitcher in Game 1 of the 2016 NCAA Lubbock Super Regional, capping his junior year with an 8-1 record and 2.01 ERA and drawing interest from Major League Baseball teams. This came two years after the Franklin, Wis., native totaled one inning pitched as a freshman and contemplated transferring from ECU.

Watkins’ profile also blossomed during the most recent NCAA tourney. The catcher hit three home runs during the regular season as a junior and then hit four in the Pirates’ first four NCAA games, including the big shot in the ninth inning to stun Virginia in the biggest game of the Charlottesville Regional.

During the NCAA run and for parts of this offseason, the homer vaulted Watkins into face-of-the-program status.

“We went through it here when we weren’t very good and winning many games, (and) we’ve been through it when we have been good,” Watkins said. “We know what to expect, and I think that’s really an advantage to have because not many teams have as many guys coming back as us. You can tell that, even in practice.”

Kruczynski and Watkins are joined as team captains by senior third baseman Eric Tyler, who will be flanked in a veteran infield by returning starting shortstop Turner Brown. Kruczynski and Tyler have future coaching aspirations.

For now, the impact ECU’s captains have on younger players, especially pitchers, has proven to be valuable.

“When I showed up, I was thinking that guy knew more about pitching than I do,” Benton said of Watkins. “Kruz has helped me a lot, but Travis is right there too. Him being back there and being able to talk to me and stuff, it’s like a whole different world (from high school).”

Benton could be the Pirates’ starter Sunday against Ole Miss or Wednesday at Campbell.

The mix of old faces and new talent is the cause for optimism surrounding the Pirates’ season.

With the future looking bright, the accomplishments already turned in by this senior class is not lost on Godwin, who was an Ole Miss assistant prior to taking over the ECU program on June 25, 2014, for his first head coaching gig.

“For the seniors who have been here four and for Travis five years, I think it’s a huge deal,” Godwin said. “You are talking about a group that persevered through a coaching change and didn’t know what to expect from me and our new staff. They won 40 games and an American Athletic Conference tournament championship (in 2015) and then were inches away last year from going to Omaha and playing in the College World Series, and have gotten a lot of upgrades for our facility.

“They still have a lot of work to do so that they can keep adding to that, but that’s one thing they’ll be able to look back on when they come back in 20 years.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.