04/20/04 — ECU programs building respect

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ECU programs building respect

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on April 20, 2004 1:59 PM

KINSTON -- Pride and passion.

Those two characteristics are needed in any sport, but they carry a significant weight when associated with East Carolina University athletics. Those traits are viable when it comes to competing daily in one of the nation's toughest and most-respected leagues -- Conference USA.

"The climb has been unbelievably challenging and unbelievably tough," men's basketball coach Bill Herrion said to members of the Lenoir/Greene and Wayne County chapters of the ECU Pirate Club on Wednesday evening at King's Restaurant.

"We've had tough years trying to build this program and put the pieces together. This has been one heckuva challenge. I really feel deep down that that we have come a long way."

Herrion attributed the Pirates' rise in CUSA to seniors Erroyl Bing and Gabriel Mikulas, whose leadership proved critical when East Carolina endured a winless January. Without their direction, the Pirates wouldn't have achieved their preseason goal of qualifying for the conference tournament.

Mikulas missed the Louisville game because of a broken arm. But his leadership qualities rubbed off on his teammates and the Pirates nearly upset the Cardinals in the CUSA's opening round.

ECU finished 13-14 overall with seven losses occurring by six points or less. At one point, the Pirates were 8-2 before losing their home CUSA opener against UAB, which reached the sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.

"In the last two years, we've figured out how to win in the non-conference portion of our season," Herrion said. "In three short years in this league, we've closed the gap talent wise and athletically.

"If you saw the Louisville game in person or on television, you noticed there wasn't much difference in the athleticism on the floor."

To keep that current trend, Herrion inked three quality recruits during the early signing period. Two, Mike Castro (Alleghany Junior College) and Charles Bronson (Philadelphia) should help bolster the frontcourt and give support to Moussa Badiane.

Badiane is just 50 blocks away from breaking the all-time CUSA record held by Cincinnati great Kenyon Martin.

"It's a tremendous challenge to play in this conference, but I think it has certainly jump-started our program," Herrion said. "When you bring in marquee programs like Louisville and Rick Pitino, Cincinnati and Bob Huggins and Marquette and DePaul, it helps in recruiting.

"We're involved with recruits we've never been involved with before. Our talent level year by year is getting better."

Eight CUSA teams received postseason bids this year.

If you think the men's portion of this conference was tough, ask second-year Lady Pirate coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener about the other side.

Nine women's teams advanced to postseason play in 2004 with four reaching the NCAA tournament. Three of those teams were ranked in the top 25. The other five battled in the Women's National Invitational Tournament.

ECU might have been the 10th had it not lost four overtime games, including a four-OT thriller against TCU.

"We certainly got better in the conference, but so did everybody else," Baldwin-Tener said. "It was a great year. Every day in practice and every game we went out with the intention of playing well."

The Lady Pirates concluded the year 14-14 and lost to Charlotte in the opening round of the CUSA tournament. Senior Courtney Willis, who hails from Fayetteville, became the first ECU player to earn first-team all-CUSA status after averaging a double-double (19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds).

Willis received an invitation to try out with a WNBA team.

That especially pleased Baldwin-Tener, who stressed the importance of in-state recruiting.

"We're trying to build a base here in North Carolina and get them to stay home," she said. "Courtney's success certainly helps us in that respect."

The ECU Board of Trustees approved contract extensions for Herrion and Baldwin-Tener through their respective 2007-08 seasons.

Second-year Pirate baseball coach Randy Mazey didn't speak very long. He talked about the team's phenomenal three-game series this past weekend at Cincinnati. ECU scored 60 runs, including an incredible 32-run output in Saturday's win.

The Pirates climbed to No. 9 nationally in Monday's Baseball America poll. They're 10th, accordingly to the latest college baseball writers' poll, and 16th in the most-recent Collegiate Baseball listing.

"We've got a great group of guys who get along well," Mazey said.

He didn't reflect too much on the season thus far, but encouraged the purple-and-golf faithful in attendance to travel to Raleigh for Wednesday's game against N.C. State. The teams meet a second time May 12 at historic Grainger Stadium in Kinston.

Mazey talked briefly about Omaha and talked about a map that he's put up in the clubhouse. Each time the team wins, he puts a pin on the map and says that draws them 27 miles closer to college baseball's mecca.

"I'm convinced 50 wins will get us there," Mazey said.

Pirate football coach John Thompson said last year was a pain of disappointment and a pain of regret. ECU finished 1-10 with its only win coming at Army, which is leaving CUSA.

The Pirates averaged just 311.2 yards per game in total offense, their lowest output since 1997. They scored just 18.1 points a game, which was their lowest in 10 years.

Thompson hired Noah Brindise, a former Steve Spurrier assistant at Florida, to improve the program's offensive woes. Brindise's experience and innovation should help bring ECU back up to full speed on the offensive side of the ball.

"It was easy for you to turn your back on the team last year, but you stuck with us," Thompson said. "I remember we were down 21-0 to South Florida. All 27,000 fans stayed in the stadium and watched us claw our way back, and send the game into double overtime.

"We didn't get the result we wanted, but you -- the fans -- gave the players a standing ovation. That's something they'll never forget and that's something those seniors will take with them when the leave in May.

"This is a special place with special people."

Pirate Club members participated in a silent auction before the banquet began. A live auction was held which included the bartering of two college baseballs signed by Mazey, two footballs signed by Thompson and two basketballs each signed by Herrion and Baldwin-Tener.