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The road to Omaha begins in Greenville as East Carolina eyes first CWS appearance


Along with West Virginia, East Carolina (43-15) is one of only two teams hosting one of the country’s sixteen double-elimination regionals this weekend that has never been to the College World Series.

While every other school hosting a regional this weekend has been to the CWS at least three times — and as many as twenty times in the case of Oklahoma State — East Carolina, which has been to the NCAA Tournament on 29 previous occasions, including making six previous appearances as a No. 1 seed in a regional, hopes to join that elite field by winning the Greenville Regional this weekend and prevailing in next week’s Super Regional.

This is the second-straight year that East Carolina is hosting a regional.

The Pirates, who won the American Athletic Conference (AAC) regular season championship by seven games over second-place Cincinnati before stumbling in last week’s conference tournament, are considered a slight favorite in the Greenville Regional at friendly and raucous Clark-LeClair Stadium this weekend, but winning their regional is far from a certainty as second-seeded North Carolina State (42-17) will almost certainly make things interesting while third-seeded Campbell (35-19) — a team that beat both East Carolina and N.C. State during the regular season — could prove to be equally dangerous.

MAAC tournament champion Quinnipiac (29-27), the No. 4 seed in the Greenville Regional, is given little chance against the three higher seeded teams.

But this is baseball and, unlike college basketball or football, anything can happen if a team — even a seemingly prohibitive long-shot like the Bobcats, who captured the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament title by scoring on a wild pitch in the bottom of the 13th inning in Sunday’s championship game against Fairfield — gets hot for three or four days.

Campbell, on the other hand, is definitely capable of pulling an upset or two in this regional.

The unheralded Camels, representing the Big South Conference, split two games with North Carolina State during the regular season — losing 10-1 in Buies Creek in late February and winning 5-3 in Raleigh earlier this month — and also split a pair of games with East Carolina, defeating the Pirates 7-6 in February when senior infielder Luis Gimenez hit an RBI-single in the bottom of the ninth before losing a 4-3 heartbreaker when ECU returned the favor by scoring a walk-off run in the bottom of the ninth in Greenville a couple of weeks ago.

Peaking at just the right time, Campbell is riding a six-game winning streak into the regional.

North Carolina State, which suffered an embarrassing 11-0 drubbing at the hands of struggling Florida State and was mercilessly pounded 9-2 by sixth-ranked Georgia Tech in last weekend’s ACC tournament, is entering the regional on a two-game skid — nothing to be too alarmed about, to be sure, but a far cry from the way it began the 2019 season when the seemingly invincible Wolfpack won 25 of their first 26 games.

Despite its less-than-stellar performance in last week’s ACC tournament in Durham, 20th-ranked N.C. State is undoubtedly the most explosive team in this regional, entering this weekend’s action as the 19th highest scoring team in the nation while averaging 7.4 runs per game, but Cliff Godwin’s Pirates might be the hungrier team, especially after losing as a No. 1 seed on their home field in last year’s regional.

Loaded with upperclassmen and seeded eleventh nationally, ECU arguably boasts a stronger starting rotation than any of the four teams in the regional.

Led by left-handers Jake Agnos (10-2), a lightning-quick flamethrower who struck out 131 batters this season while posting an ERA of 2.00, and sophomore Jake Kuchmaner (6-2), who tossed a perfect game against Maryland on March 17th while whiffing 73 this season and finishing with an impressive earned run average of 2.83, pitching could prove to be the difference in Greenville.

The Pirates, moreover, have plenty of offensive punch with a half-dozen legitimate .300 hitters in their lineup.

Led by versatile first baseman and pitcher Alec Burleson, a sophomore lefty from Denver who can do it all and hit a sizzling .370 this season while belting nine home runs and 21 doubles and driving in a team-high 54 RBIs, East Carolina hit .294 as a team this year.

Burleson, believe it or not, appears to have moved into the starting rotation and was on the mound in last week’s AAC tournament in Clearwater, Florida, allowing just one run in six innings.

East Carolina’s Bryant Packard — the AAC’s 2018 Triple Crown winner — is equally potent at the plate, hitting at a brisk .349 clip, while catcher Jake Washer, a redshirt junior, and designated hitter Spencer Brickhouse are dangerous long-ball threats, crushing 13 and 12 home runs, respectively.

Impressively, East Carolina posted a 12-6 record against nine of the 64 teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament, including sweeping conference rivals UConn and Cincinnati — the latter on the road — in a pair of three-game series, splitting two games with Duke, and defeating then 9th-ranked Ole Miss 3-2 in Oxford.

The Pirates also played top-ranked UCLA pretty tough while dropping three games to the Bruins at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles in April. ECU was leading in the sixth inning in two of those three contests.

Preceded by a noon contest between North Carolina State and Campbell, top-seeded East Carolina will begin regional play against fourth-seeded Quinnipiac at 6 p.m. Friday.

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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