04/29/08 — ECU Pirate Armada at Walnut Creek

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ECU Pirate Armada at Walnut Creek

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on April 29, 2008 1:48 PM

Autograph seekers came armed with footballs and hats.

Cameras flashed periodically.

Smiles and laughter filled the room.

Purple-and-gold clad Pirate Nation members from Wayne, Greene, Lenoir, Sampson and Duplin County filled the banquet room at Walnut Creek Country Club on Monday evening. And each listened quietly when four East Carolina coaches talked about their respective recruiting campaigns and expectations for next season.

Most eagerly anticipated hearing fourth-year head football coach Skip Holtz's give his thoughts about the 2008 season. The Notre Dame graduate steered the Pirates to an 8-5 record last season and a victory over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. It was East Carolina's first bowl triumph in seven years.

Thirteen seniors graduated, including All-Conference USA running back Chris Johnson, who was picked 24th overall in the recently-completed NFL Draft. Five additional players are testing the waters in NFL camps.

Holtz is cautiously optimistic about this season.

A total of 19 red-shirt freshmen suited up for spring practice as Holtz and his staff attempted to complete two goals -- develop a two-deep depth chart and develop leadership. That wasn't easy, especially on offense, since several returners couldn't participate in the nearly month-long session.

"We have some talent, but we're not there yet," said Holtz. "You can build a season by putting your eggs in one basket to win this year, but that's not how we do it at East Carolina. We're in a building process and we've got the pieces of the puzzle.

"It's just a matter of putting them all together."

The Pirates kick off their season Aug. 30 against Virginia Tech in Charlotte. Their home schedule includes West Virginia, Houston, Memphis, Marshall and UTEP. They'll play Atlantic Coast Conference members N.C. State and Virginia on the road.

Men's basketball coach Mack McCarthy, head baseball coach Billy Godwin and women's basketball coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener gave their perspectives on their teams.

Baldwin-Tener led the Pirates to the 2007 Conference USA tournament championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. One year later, ECU compiled a 13-17 record and lacked a strong inside presence to handle the physical rigors of conference play.

"This past year we had some big wins over N.C. State and Georgetown, but we were disappointed at the end of the season," said Baldwin-Tener. "We didn't have an inside presence. That's been a key in our signing period and development of our young, bigger players in the offseason.

"They all want to do better than we did last year and we have an outstanding group of young ladies."

Baldwin-Tener signed Ashley Clark, the South Carolina player of the year, and Jean Best, who helped lead Wilson Beddingfield to a pair of appearances in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-A state title game.

While Baldwin-Tener continues to build a strong foundation on the women's basketball scene, McCarthy is devising a blueprint for the men's basketball program.

The Pirates finished 11-19 last season, but recorded their first-ever win in school history against an ACC team (N.C. State) and beat George Mason on the road. They improved in the win column and more importantly, nine starters will return for the 2008-09 season.

"It's a difficult job, but a job I think we can handle," said McCarthy. "We've made some positive strides."

East Carolina will play host to Wake Forest and George Mason next winter, and battle N.C. State and Clemson on the road.

Meanwhile, Godwin and his baseball team are in the final phase of their CUSA season. The No. 30-ranked Pirates (32-13 overall) are tied for fourth with Houston in the league standings and have three conference series remaining -- UAB, Tulane and Memphis.

"A lot of great things are going on in our program right now and our guys are excited about what they're doing," said Godwin, whose team has 11 remaining regular-season contests overall.

Godwin signed Charles B. Aycock catcher Zach Wright in the fall and has received a verbal commitment from Eastern Wayne junior shortstop Walker Gourley.

The Pirates visit in-state rival UNC Wilmington today.