Optimism from 2018 carried into this year for many of East Carolina’s sports teams. The most important result of this year was the Pirates finishing with a 4-8 record in football compared to 3-9 each of the last three seasons under the previous coaching staff.
There were still challenges on the football field and for ECU to consistently fill sections of its stadium, most notably in a dreary 49-24, season-ending loss to Tulsa on Nov. 30, but many fans still are ready to support athletics director Jon Gilbert, football coach Mike Houston and the direction of the Pirates. ECU’s baseball team also continues to thrive on an annual basis.
Here are some ECU sports highlights from this year:
Breaking down 4-8
The Pirates’ first few games against top-level competition were low-scoring on offense, including a 34-6 loss at N.C. State in Houston’s first game as the Pirate leader.
A mix of highs and lows continued until a breakthrough moment happened Sept. 28 in Norfolk, Va., versus Old Dominion. ECU built an early lead and held off ODU during the final quarter for the Pirates to stop a 10-game road losing streak that dated back to 2017.
“That locker room in there, I haven’t experienced that at ECU with the feeling we just had in there,” said sophomore quarterback and Greenville native Holton Ahlers.
After a couple of close and exciting losses to ranked teams Cincinnati and SMU in November, ECU’s lone American Athletic Conference victory was at Connecticut on Nov. 23. That day is also when East Carolina reached the four-win mark.
“Don’t underestimate what this means,” first-year Pirate coach Mike Houston said. “There is no more 3-9. ... It is such a good locker room right now and we worked so hard to get there, but if we went 3-9 again, it makes people question.”
Tower, beer sales
TowneBank Tower, the jewel of ECU athletics’ $60 million Southside Renovation Project, was under construction for most of the year until it officially opened in August. Fans got a tour of the five-story press box and premium seating area later in the month.
The Pirates held their first home game at their new-look stadium on Sept. 7, beating overmatched Gardner-Webb 48-9.
That was also the night that beer sales were available to the general public for the first time at Dowdy-Ficklen. Some lines and credit card machines were slow-moving during the first game, but in general, fans were pleased to be able to buy beer and wine while in the stadium on a muggy evening.
Universities statewide implemented alcohol sales to the general public during the fall semester.
An exciting November for the ECU football team began on Nov. 2 when freshman receiver C.J. Johnson had a breakout game to remember with 283 receiving yards to set a new American Athletic Conference single-game record.
Ahlers, who teamed with Johnson years earlier for recording-breaking performances at D.H. Conley High School, completed 32-of-52 passes for 535 passing yards, four touchdowns and one interception in ECU’s 46-43, last-second loss to No. 17 Cincinnati.
The Pirates’ quarterback then established a new record of his own one week later in Dallas with 498 yards and a school-record six passing touchdowns in a 59-51 loss to No. 23 SMU. Pirate freshman receiver Tyler Snead caught 19 of Ahlers’ passes, totaling 240 yards and three TDs.
Johnson finished with an encouraging team-best 908 receiving yards for the season, but not having a 1,000-yard receiver did stop the Pirates’ nation-leading streak of a 1,000-yard receiver for seven straight years. It began with now-NFL player Justin Hardy in 2012.
Regional washout, win
It rained a lot in eastern North Carolina during the first week of June, which muddied baseball fields and also muddied the NCAA Greenville Regional schedule hosted by ECU at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
No games were completed during Day 1 of the anticipated event. Then, the host Pirates lost to little-known Quinnipiac from Wallingford, Conn., during the Day 2 revised scheduled and shockingly dropped into the losers’ bracket of the regional.
ECU still prevailed and won the title, eliminating rival N.C. State as part of four straight wins during a two-day span to advance in the 64-team NCAA tournament. The Pirates beat Campbell 12-3 in the regional championship game for instantly one of the best moments in Clark-LeClair Stadium’s history.
“There was never any doubt,” catcher Jake Washer said. “We were just playing hard and knowing that we could do what we did.”
The Pirates then lost at Louisville in the super regional round to finish with a 47-18 record, ECU’s most wins in a season since 2004.
One day after ECU baseball won the Greenville Regional, some of the team’s stars began getting selected in the Major League Baseball draft.
In all, seven Pirates were selected in this year’s MLB draft. Five of them were juniors, beginning with pitcher Jake Agnos going in the fourth round to the New York Yankees with a $414,000 approximate draft pick slot value, and all five juniors turned pro later in the summer.
Coaching turnover in women’s basketball led to Kim McNeill’s hire from Hartford in late March in hopes of bringing stability to that program, while potential stability for the men’s team came in roster turnover.
Coach Joe Dooley’s team hit the recruiting trail after finishing with a frustrating 10-21 record in March, signing 11 new players during the offseason and completely changing the look to the team’s roster for the current campaign. The Pirates got bigger — signing three 7-foot players and welcoming in a slew of transfers — and they still have sophomore standout forward Jayden Gardner as their leading scorer and a focal point for now and the future.
Recovering from injuries and continuing to build team chemistry were issues as part of the team’s 2-7 start during the first nine games, but a win against Campbell on Dec. 14 helped during a more productive and optimistic December.
This December allowed Gilbert to reflect on his first year as the Pirates’ AD after leaving Southern Miss for ECU officially on Dec. 3, 2018.
Financial and other challenges remain, but Gilbert said a boost in the culture around the Pirates’ athletics facilities makes him most proud.
ECU already has ushered its new football season ticket sales packages — earlier than usual — for 2020. Last Wednesday’s ticket launch coincided with ECU signing 25 football recruits to boost its roster for Houston’s second season with the Pirates.
Gilbert said increasing football season ticket sales remains as his No. 1 priority heading into next year.
“A year ago we were at 12,500 and this year a little north of 14,000, but we need to be higher than that if we want to get the program back where we all want it,” he said.