Bryant Ward, Cliff Godwin and John Williamson were roommates when they were East Carolina baseball players 20 years ago.
Now Ward and Williamson are among a cadre of Godwin’s former teammates and classmates who will be rooting hard for the Pirates, who are back in an NCAA super regional series today at Vanderbilt.
“There is a guy we used to go to war with who is now representing our great school,” said Williamson, who played for the Pirates and former coach Keith LeClair from 1998-2001 and was inducted into the ECU Hall of Fame in 2012. “It doesn’t matter if it 20 years ago, we would probably go suit up right now and play.”
The 2001 Pirates were the first ECU team to make the NCAA super regional round, winning a regional in Wilson and then losing to Tennessee in a super regional held in Kinston. This ECU team is the sixth regional championship squad in 20 years, but the Pirates are still searching for their first super regional breakthrough victory for a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
ECU’s 2001 star-studded club included Chad Tracy, who played nine seasons in the Major Leagues from 2004-13 and also an ECU Hall of Famer, and Clayton McCullough, who is the first-base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ward went to J.H. Rose High School prior to becoming a Pirate and is an assistant coach at UCLA, which was eliminated last weekend during the Texas Tech regional. Although UCLA losing was not his first choice, it allows Ward to watch the ECU-Vanderbilt series with plenty of intent.
“I haven’t watched all of East Carolina’s games or Vanderbilt’s games, but we played both in 2019 and we played Vanderbilt last year, but I can promise you that the team Cliff is leading in will not be scared and will not flinch one bit,” Ward said. “I can promise you that. Some teams probably go in there (to Vanderbilt) and test the waters and see (Vandy star pitchers Kumar) Rocker and (Jack) Leiter and what they are about and they are beat before they walk in. I can promise you the Pirates will have absolutely zero fear and rightfully with the chance to win two games and a chance to go to Omaha on the line. ... I’m a college baseball fan, like my kids are fans and they have the brackets and everything, so if I am not out recruiting, there is a 100 percent chance me and my wife and three kids will be watching uncle Cliff in Nashville.”
The impact of LeClair, who led the Pirates for the 1998-2002 seasons before he died from ALS at age 40 in July of 2006, stretches even to Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who hired Snow Hill native Godwin as his director of baseball operations for the Commodores in 2004. Godwin was later an assistant coach at Ole Miss when his alma mater brought him back to Greenville on June 25, 2014, as head coach of the Pirates. He wears No. 23 in honor of LeClair.
“(Michigan head coach) Erik Bakich and Cliff Godwin were on the East Carolina team way back that Keith LeClair, who was my best friend who died of ALS, coached, so we are all connected in between,” Corbin said Wednesday afternoon as part of previewing this super regional. “With Cliff being the coach there and when you play for Cliff Godwin and play in East Carolina’s program, you are going to be a tough kid. You are going to have fibers that are going to allow you to compete at a high level.”
Some of the current fall, obstacle course-style workouts at ECU under Godwin and at Michigan under Bakich stem from what LeClair introduced to them during the late 1990s when they were Pirate student-athletes trying to bond together and advance the ECU baseball program up the national ranks. LeClair often talked about the importance of having passionate fans and passionate players help each other enjoy the postseason.
ECU made a super regional in 2001, 2004, 2009, 2016 and 2019 prior to this year. Godwin, a two-time academic All-American at ECU, has coached the Pirates to the last three of the six regional championships.
The 2016 Pirates won Game 1 of a super regional at Texas Tech to get one win away from Omaha, but then lost two straight to the Red Raiders. ECU is 1-10 all-time in super regional games.
“I made the last out of the super regional in 2001,” Godwin said. “That was me, Cliff Godwin, in my last at-bat of my senior year. This team, in my opinion, is not going to be measured by if we make it to the College World Series or not, but it’s what we have done so far and the 3.69 team GPA and the guys we are putting out into the world. ... I’m in a better place in my life to know that our guys have competed their tails off and worked their tails off to put them in a situation to go there. Erik Bakich and I were talking last Monday and for the first time it kind of clicked for me, because Erik said it, that when coach LeClair was here and talked about Omaha all the time, Omaha wasn’t the destination, but it was a lifestyle. That is the thing that matters to me, but of course, we are going to go out there and compete.”
East Carolina and Vanderbilt each went unbeaten to win their regional. The Pirates had sell-out crowds of 5,020 and 5,017, respectively, at Clark-LeClair Stadium for their semifinal and championship games, including Williamson and Tracy.
“The atmosphere at Clark-LeClair was electric,” Tracy said. “These guys work harder than anybody in college baseball and it is nice to see the fruits of their labor. I think every Pirate to ever suit up is trying to will this team to Omaha, and it starts with our fearless leader and my good friend, Cliff Godwin.”
Vanderbilt won the 2019 national championship in Omaha for its second national title in school history among four College World Series berths. The Pirates have an edge, however, in total NCAA tournaments with 31 compared to Vandy’s 19.
“I promise you that ECU team will not be scared,” Williamson said. “They are ready physically and ready mentally. Whatever happens, happens, but they will be prepared for it. When I look at regionals and (super regionals) in college baseball, it’s just so exciting. ... When you look back at 20 years ago, we kind of laid the foundation of national success when we were on that stage.
“We’re knocking on the door every year. If you knock on the door and with the law of averages and if you knock enough, good things can happen. It may not be this year or may not be next year, but if you continue with that winning culture and winning tradition, anything can happen.”