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College Weekend Recap: 3/5-3/7
by Will Kimmey
GREENVILLE, N.C.—Keith LeClair watched from his wheelchair Friday as his children J.D. and Audrey threw out the first pitches at East Carolina’s new park, Clark-LeClair Stadium. The ECU-record 4,410 fans, several of whom were wearing LECLAIR 23 jerseys, stood, clapped and cheered for the program’s former coach, who stepped down following the 2002 season to continue his battle with ALS.
“If you’ve got a heart inside your chest, that moment kind of got to you,” said East Carolina coach Randy Mazey, who succeeded LeClair in 2003 and led the Pirates to a school-record 51 wins in 2004.
The poignant moment opened the second annual Keith LeClair Classic, a six-team tournament that christened the $10 million park with nine games in three days. Huge crowds filled the stands each day, with 5,023 fans for the Arizona State-East Carolina game Saturday night and 4,234 more on Sunday.
“It is a recognition of what kinds of things have been going on here over the last several years,” said Terry Holland, East Carolina’s athletics director. “They built a nice program, the players and the coaches, and it’s a nice reward for them.”
LeClair watched East Carolina’s games from a side room in the new press box, where each member of the Arizona State team and coaching staff introduced himself to LeClair and presented him with a signed jersey.
“I thought it would be a great experience for our kids to see the reality of things,” Arizona State coach Pat Murphy said. “Keith was an unbelievable coach that, in my mind, should go down in college baseball as a tremendous person with a tremendous career. Everybody that knows him knows what a tremendous guy he was, and I’m fortunate to have met him.
“I just told him he’s been a great example for all of us, to see the way he battled this disease. No wonder his teams played so hard—it’s all about the example he set for them. I told him it was truly an honor to play in his stadium, and I’d pray for him and remember him forever.”
In 1998, LeClair left his alma mater, Western Carolina, and took over a Pirates program that had not reached the NCAA tournament in four years. He led East Carolina to regionals in his second season, and the team hasn’t missed the postseason since, advancing to super-regionals in 2001 and 2004.
Mazey called the stadium, which seats 3,000 and can hold more on the raised berm behind the outfield, a key addition to a program seeking its first College World Series appearance. The park was still under construction in November when Mazey offered recruits a tour, but he said it still helped East Carolina sign its best class in years.
“This is in the top five or 10 nationally in facilities,” Mazey said. “If you look back at college baseball, programs that have built a facility like this have jumped to another level. Our only goal in this program is to get to Omaha, and this is the last piece. We’ve got no more excuses. It’s time to put up or shut up.”
The Pirates worked toward that end over the weekend. They scored a run in the bottom of the eighth to beat Michigan 2-1 on Friday, which also featured a 4-3 Georgia victory against Ohio State and a 4-3 Arizona State win against North Carolina in 11 innings.
“If you’re a baseball enthusiast and like old-time baseball, that’s what you saw today, pitching and defense,” said Mazey, whose team also beat Georgia 7-1 and lost 10-3 to Arizona State.The Big 10’s Big Weekend
The tournament also served notice that the Big 10 schools came prepared to do more than just be glad to be able to play outside in early March.
"I told our guys, ‘Don't take a back seat,’" Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. "That was our motto for the weekend."
Maloney's Wolverines listened, as did conference rival Ohio State. Each performed as well as any team in the event, defeating North Carolina, which entered the tournament ranked No. 6. Michigan also topped Georgia, previously the nation's No. 7 team.
"It's refreshing for guys like (Ohio State coach) Bob (Todd) and I to have success against great programs that have earned national recognition," Maloney said. "We feel like we have pretty good teams, too."
Senior center fielder Matt Butler proved the hero for Michigan. He delivered a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday to beat Georgia 6-4 and an RBI single Sunday to beat North Carolina 1-0.
Butler took a congratulatory jog around Clark-LeClair Stadium, delivering high-fives to some of the East Carolina fans hanging out behind the outfield fence. They were chanting his name after cheering for the underdog against in-state rival North Carolina. (Arizona State's Colin Curtis took a "LeClair Leap" into the left-field wall to thank fans Friday after scoring the winning run against North Carolina.)
The Michigan players mobbed Butler at the plate following Saturday's heroics as if he just had helped the team win a conference title.
The victory was that significant for Michigan. It helped the Wolverines (5-2) finish their season-opening road trip with a winning record for the first time since the 1997 team started 8-4.
The Wolverines opened the tournament with a 2-1 loss to East Carolina, which scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth inning. They also won 4-1 at Florida Atlantic, a 9-4 team, to open the week for the school's first 3-0 start since 1995. A 17-12 loss Tuesday to St. John's broke the winning streak.
Pitching was a key factor in Michigan's success. Subtracting the nine earned runs over nine innings against St. John's, the Wolverines staff has posted a 2.55 ERA in the six games started by its weekend rotation of senior righthanders Michael Penn (1-1, 2.84) and Jim Brauer (1-0, 2.84) and junior righty Derek Feldkamp (1-0, 0.82). Fourteen pitchers have logged innings through seven games after it took 60 games for that many arms to see action a year ago.
"I said prior to the season that this is the most pitching depth of any staff I've ever coached, and I had some pretty good pitching staffs," said Maloney, who coached 2002 first-round picks Brian Bullington and Luke Hagerty at Ball State. "Those guys went out and proven that this weekend."
Ohio State earned a win against North Carolina and ace Daniel Bard by scoring twice in the first inning and holding on for a 2-1 win. The Buckeyes also came close Friday and Sunday, ending the 4-3 loss to Georgia with the tying run on base and falling to Arizona State 3-0.
The win came in the fourth game of the year for Ohio State, while the Tar Heels had played 10 already. Arizona State left the event with 21 games played, putting it more than a third of the way through its schedule.
“This is only the fourth time we’ve been outside since the fall, and all four have been games,” Ohio State coach Bob Todd said after Saturday’s win. “Obviously, I’m pleased with the way we played. Northern clubs are still behind a little bit. We’re not sure who our middle relief guys are. We don’t know who our definitive closer is going to be. And, we’ve started two totally different lineups in two games.”
No matter how early it is or how unsettled things might be for the Big 10 teams, the victories should go a long way for the league come tournament selection time.
“In RPI, it’s ‘who’d they beat in the top 25?’ ” said Todd, a former member of the Division I baseball committee. “It’s a pretty big deal for us and Michigan to do this right out of the gym.”