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View from the 'ville
Thursday, February 11, 2010

By Al Myatt

Flagships sailing against the wind

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Overcoming adversity is a consistent theme in athletics. East Carolina's big ticket programs have certainly faced their share of challenges of late.

Football was coming off of its second straight Conference USA championship and it appeared that Skip Holtz was intent on remaining with the program when the South Florida job opened up with all of its personal allures for the former Pirate skipper.

ECU athletic director Terry Holland scoured the landscape before settling on alumnus Ruffin McNeill as Holtz's successor. The Pirate Nation has either renewed or developed an affection for McNeill and his down-to-earth style.

But McNeill and his new staff have some obstacles to overcome. The continuity that existed in the five-year Holtz era is gone. The coaches have been looking at tape and at this point are probably trying to put faces and names with numbers.

The players will be learning new systems and terminology in spring practice. The "Air Raid" offense has no field general at the moment. There are foundations to be laid as opposed to building on the existing structure.

There is good news, however. The program is obviously in much better shape than when Holtz was involved in a coaching transition following the 2004 season. A 3-20 span preceded his arrival.

"We're not coming into a program we have to build," McNeill said. "It's a program. Those kids know how to win. You watch 'em work in that weight room. It's a group of men that really push themselves to the limit. That makes it easy now.

"There will be some things that we change personal philosophy-wise for them, from me to them, but they're ready to make that move."

McNeill relishes the task at hand.

"I said it the first day, I feel blessed," said the new ECU coach. "I know I'm blessed to be here. Things happen for a reason. I will do the best job I can every day to make sure I do what I can do to make East Carolina better. That's my only thought process when I wake up. What can I do to make East Carolina better?"

McNeill wants that mindset to pervade the program.

"The coaches I bring in will think the same way," he said. "The secretaries upstairs will think the same way. Everybody that has been assigned to me will think that same way. What can we do to make this university better? That is non-negotiable. There are certain things we can negotiate but that thought process is non-negotiable and that's the fun part of it.

"O.K., what can we do today to make it better. Yeah, we can do this — we dive into it."

ECU took a step toward improvement on Wednesday with the announcement of the signing of receiver Lance Lewis out of East Mississippi Community College. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, the former Concord (NC) High standout would seem to possess the kind of athleticism and size desired among skill position performers in the new offense.

Adjustments produce hoops win

The East Carolina basketball program has existed in a virtual vacuum this season. The fan base's attention was on the football team's bid for the league title at the outset of hoops season in November. Then the focus shifted to the Liberty Bowl on Jan. 2 in Memphis.

Football stayed in the consciousness of the Pirate Nation with the departure of Holtz and the ensuing coaching search. The saga continued as a new coaching staff was assembled and sought to keep the recruiting class intact — with some promising additions — prior to the signing date last week.

ECU had a goal of going .500 in Conference USA but was just 1-8 in league play heading into the home matchup with Tulane on Wednesday night.

Possible early momentum in the league race was jeopardized by the suspension of leading rebounder Darrius Morrow for three games in January.

The Pirates pulled out the sorely-needed win over the Green Wave with some timely plays in the final three minutes. ECU's only previous league win came against Tulane on Jan. 24.

One thing Mack McCarthy's teams at East Carolina have shown is the ability to snap out of tailspins by making effective adjustments. Coming off a 100-49 defeat at Marshall on Saturday that extended the Pirates' losing streak to three games, ECU came out and took a 10-point lead at halftime in their second meeting with the Wave.

Although Tulane went ahead in the last five minutes, the Pirates pulled out the 71-68 victory.

"I thought the start of the game indicated that we were focused and had bounced back from what was a really disappointing performance Saturday," McCarthy said. "I thought a bigger statement about the team was the way that we lost the lead in the second half, but didn't hang our heads. We came back and regained the lead. I think that speaks volumes for where they are. They're still trying to do everything it takes to win.

"I'm really happy for the team to get this win here at home. Probably other than the George Washington game, this is the best we've played at home."

McCarthy has sought to correct an overdependence on junior point guard Brock Young on offense.

"On the one hand, you want to have the ball in Brock's hands a lot," McCarthy said. "But I thought we started relying on that too much. It's fine when Brock has the ball in his hands and the other team is pressing and he's making decisions four-on-three, five-on-three or even four-on-two.

"When it's five-on-five, his height (5-foot-11) and the fact that everybody is focused on him keeps him from being as productive. It makes the decision-making for him harder. He wasn't getting a lot of help, either.

"Tonight we didn't execute perfectly, but we still had some more ball reversals with some inside-out action. He had more opportunities to drive and either get fouled or make the shot."

Young, ECU's career leader in assists, had 18 points and 9 assists as the Pirates swept their regular season series with Tulane. Young had eight assists and no turnovers in the first half. He said the Pirates came out with more energy and a new offensive set on Wednesday night.

"These past couple games we haven't played with a lot of energy," Young said. "There was no push to the offense. Tonight we had more push. We have a new set where there is more spacing so the bigs can isolate in the post and the guards can screen up top. We had a nice flow in the game tonight.

"This offense is simpler. We screen away, the bigs flash and we just keep moving."

Diamond Pirates battle weather

ECU baseball coach Billy Godwin has been dealing with ice, rain and cold weather in general since practice started on Friday, Jan. 29, but he's not finding fault with Mother Nature.

"We're not complaining but in 24 years this is tough as I remember," Godwin said. "We're not making excuses. We're just plodding along."

ECU has scrimmaged and worked out in its facilities underneath Clark-LeClair Stadium. The Pirates practiced for two-and-a-half hours on Wednesday.

"We can't control some things," Godwin said. "But I feel good about where we are. A lot of people are worse off than we are."

Godwin said he would make decisions about his pitching rotation for the season-opening series with Virginia, scheduled for Feb. 19-21, after workouts this weekend.

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02/11/2010 04:36 AM


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