After an offseason filled with high expectations, the East Carolina baseball team will step back on the field for an opening road series against the highly-touted Ole Miss Rebels starting Friday in Oxford, Mississippi.
The Rebels, who have equally high pre-season expectations, are fresh off a 43-win season. Ole Miss also hauled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class and despite losing six players to the MLB draft, it still returns five everyday starters. Depth should be no problem either as the recruiting class produced a combined 28 freshmen and sophomores.
Connections between the two schools also run deep in this particular matchup. Before taking over the reins in Greenville, head coach Cliff Godwin was an assistant under Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco.
“Working for a great coach like Mike Bianco, who’s been around the game for a long time, I’ve tried to take a few things from him,” Godwin said. “And the way they run their program has helped us a lot here.”
This weekend the Pirates are going to have to face preseason All-American Colby Bortles. The senior third baseman played in every game last year for the Rebels and slashed .269/.379/.854 with eight homers and 50 RBI. Bortles’ 21 doubles was good enough for second in the Southeastern Conference.
Bortles’ fellow captain, Tate Blackman, also returns to the Rebels’ infield. Blackman was named Second Team All-SEC for his play at second base. In his sophomore campaign, Blackman also played in every game, slashing .322/.392/.827 with 38 RBI. He and now-graduated shortstop Errol Robinson combined to form the most formidable infield in the SEC, turning a conference-high 30 double-plays.
The lack of inexperience isn’t something that Godwin has had to worry about this off-season in Greenville. Instead, he has had to keep the Pirates focused while ignoring the onslaught of top-10 rankings that have been thrown their way, which he insists his team has done and is now ready to start playing.
“We’re just focusing on getting better. The game will speak for itself when we step on the field,” Godwin said.
There will also be an abundance of strong pitching in the opening series. The Pirates return Friday night starter Evan Kruczynski and Jacob Wolfe, while the Rebels return their No. 2 starter from a year ago, David Parkinson, and feature three freshman All-Americans. Both teams have Stopper-of-the-Year candidates anchoring their bullpens — Joe Ingle for ECU and Will Stokes for Ole Miss.
Godwin is looking forward to going back and taking on the last school to employ him. Even though he won’t get to play in front of The Jungle at ECU until Feb. 24, he knows his team will be playing in front of a great fan base in Oxford.
“(Ole Miss and ECU) are both very passionate about their baseball. Great fan bases. The baseball players are very recognizable whether in Oxford or in Greenville,” Godwin said. “Their stadium may be a little bigger than ours, but other than that I guess there’s a lot of comparisons.”
The three-game series will kick off at Swayze Field Friday at 5 p.m. All three games can be seen live on the SEC Network or heard on WNCT 1070 AM. Saturday’s game will begin at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday’s at 1 p.m.