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East Carolina’s football team left town on Wednesday morning, but not to travel to Blacksburg, Virginia, for this weekend’s previously scheduled game at Virginia Tech.
Following the school’s decision to cancel the team’s trip to Virginia Tech with Hurricane Florence looming off the coast of the Carolinas, the program opted to head south to Florida to completely get out of the path of the storm.
Tuesday’s decision by the athletic department and school to take the initiative to cancel Saturday’s scheduled game was met with applause by those across the Carolinas. But Virginia Tech officials didn’t seem too thrilled with the decision. Despite other teams in the region — such as NC State, North Carolina, William & Mary and Virginia — opting to cancel, postpone or move their games, Virginia Tech wanted to wait another 24-plus hours before making a decision on the game. With it being a home game for Virginia Tech, the Atlantic Coast Conference leaves the ultimate choice of whether the game is played or not up to the home team.
But in its release, ECU cited “the safety and welfare for everyone in the path of this storm is the University’s main priority and decisions regarding athletics events are made in the best interest of ensuring the safety of student-athletes, coaches, staff and their families.”
All ECU athletic events through Sunday — home or away — have been cancelled by ECU officials. Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock released his own statement shortly after the Pirates made their own decision, indicating he was unhappy with the news.
“We will do what’s best for Virginia Tech moving forward as it relates to ECU and to the game,” Babcock said. “We certainly understand the need for safety, of course, we just felt that tomorrow, making the decision then, would’ve been more responsible and accurate. We informed ECU of this multiple times.”
Babcock’s statement was met with lots of criticism online by not only ECU supporters and fans, but several other regional media outlets and even some national pundits. Babcock and Virginia Tech have yet to issue a formal apology to East Carolina.
In ECU’s official release, the school essentially made its case for why it felt the need to cancel the trip, mentioning the states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have all declared a state of emergency for the Category 4 hurricane. The university also canceled all classes for the rest of the week after Tuesday at noon.
While the latest tracking information on the hurricane indicates that Blacksburg will see less impact and the game could have potentially been played, ECU’s biggest issue would be the travel to and from the game. The Pirates are scheduled to play at South Florida next weekend, and getting stuck in Virginia without anywhere to practice and prepare would have been far from ideal.
“Regardless of the track, the potential for several days of heavy rainfall, flooding and gusty winds across portions of eastern North Carolina exists,” the release read. “These impacts may lead to downed trees, prolonged power outages, blocked roadways, closed bridges, and disruptions to water/sewer supply.”
With the game cancelled, ECU’s team will stay in Florida for the coming days leading up to the Sept. 22 contest at USF. But either way, it’s hard to imagine the Pirates won’t be worried about what’s happening in Greenville and eastern North Carolina as a whole over the coming days.
“I worry about my family when I’m off the field,” said senior receiver Trevon Brown, a native of Wilmington who has a young son. “When I’m on the field, I worry about football, and this team because this team is my family. Outside of football, I go home and I’ve got to call my mom and see if they’re all right and just make sure they’re in a safe place and make sure my son is in a safe place.”
For those on the outside looking in, this past Saturday’s final score that resulted in a 41-19 ECU victory over North Carolina was shocking.
But for the players and coaches inside ECU’s locker room, it was expected. Despite a disappointing, frustrating and embarrassing 28-23 loss to North Carolina A&T in its season opener, ECU knew it was two or three plays away — including a 100-yard pick-six in A&T’s favor and a fumble inside the Aggies’ 5-yard line — from blowing the visiting FCS foe out of the water. Instead, critical mistakes turned into another loss to begin year 3 of the Scottie Montgomery era.
But instead of sulking and laboring over what could have been, ECU focused on the positives, and worked all week on refining and correcting the mistakes it made versus the Aggies. That fortitude and hard work added up to a 22-point destruction of the Tar Heels, including a second half where the Pirates didn’t allow a single point to run away with the victory and improve to 1-1 on the season.
ECU has now beaten UNC three consecutive times dating back to 2013, scoring 166 points in those games.
“So many people don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in here and what so many of these guys — especially these fifth-year guys — have been through,” senior offensive tackle Garrett McGhin said. “We’ve been through a whirlwind of emotions. We’ve been through ups and been through downs. It really felt good to get Carolina.”
Both head coaches — ECU’s Montgomery and UNC’s Larry Fedora — were feeling some heat due to recent struggles heading into the game. But it was Montgomery’s staff that seemingly outcoached Fedora’s.
One week after seeing their running game sputter, the Pirates introduced true freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers to the mix. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder ran for two touchdowns and 36 yards on eight attempts. Ahlers’ presence also allowed running back Darius Pinnix to rip off a crucial 48-yard run in the second half. ECU finished with 220 yards rushing and 290 yards passing, with sophomore signal-caller Reid Herring completing 19-of-32 throws for one score and accounting for all of the yardage through the air.
“We started this in January and unfortunately we didn’t open the door the right way,” Montgomery said. “But I knew who we were. Throughout last week, through everything that’s been said to our kids, about our staff, we knew who we were. Before when that happened, there were questions because of our locker room in how we would respond to it. We had a great day of work on Tuesday and they came out and performed well today. I was just proud we played hard.
“I thought we played harder than them. When a football team out-plays a team just by playing hard, that’s critically important for a program. That’s working the body and that’s exactly what those guys did.”
The weeks ahead will determine if the Pirates’ performance in Week 2 was an aberration, or a sign of things to come for Montgomery’s club. Either way, the players agreed it was nice to have Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium rocking like the glory days once again.
“It was unbelievable, coming out and seeing thousands of fans rowdy and cheering,” Brown said. “They gave us a big confidence boost, like we have to win to keep our fans coming into the stadium, we have to win for our teammates and we have to play for our coach. That’s what we go by every day.”
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.