There were a number of benefits that came out of both East Carolina golf teams playing in tournaments in Puerto Rico recently, and only a few of them actually pertained to the sport of golf.
The athletes had the opportunity to encourage resort employees by their very presence — a taste of normal tourism in the aftermath of the island’s biggest catastrophe. Some of them learned more about recovery efforts from the only other guests in the hotel — electrical workers who had been living there for weeks or months to help restore power on the island where approximately 15 percent of residents are still in the dark more than five months after Hurricane Maria struck.
And even if the Pirates only had minimal exposure to the damaged areas, they understood enough of the devastation to gain valuable perspective from the experience — a sense of appreciation for the resources and opportunities they might take for granted.
“The area was just devastated,” women’s head coach Kevin Williams said. “I can’t even describe what we saw, and do it accurately, from the resort to the airport, that 30-minute drive. People there were so appreciative of us coming there. They were so happy, because they haven’t had much golf played there.”
On top of it all, the Pirates of the links played on a beautiful oceanside course that offered a few valuable lessons about hitting a golf ball effectively in bracing wind. The women finished sixth in their tournament Feb. 11-13 and the men finished ninth when they competed a week later.
While those results weren’t what the teams were hoping for, the sum total of the experience certainly was.
“The conditions were very tough in Puerto Rico, very windy,” said junior Carley Cox, who placed seventh overall to become the highest individual finisher on either team. “I personally hadn’t played in that much wind before, and I don’t think a lot of girls on our team had either. I think it was good for us to play in that condition, and learn from that. It made us better from that experience and from playing those teams, and we got to play against some of the best teams in the nation.”
The field of 11 teams included opponents like Arkansas (the tournament champion), Colorado, N.C. State and host school Purdue. The Pirate women have become accustomed to success amid such depth, especially in the fall when they capture two consecutive tournaments — placing first out of 17 teams at the home Pirate Collegiate Classic and first out of 19 teams at the Pinehurst Challenge.
Through their success in the fall season, Williams said that his golfers beat 10 teams ranked in the top 40 teams and six or seven teams ranked in the top 30. They are ranked No. 31 now, and four of their starting five women are ranked among the top 250 collegiate players in the nation. In a decade at the helm of the Pirate program, Williams calls this the deepest team he has ever seen in purple and gold.
“I feel good about where we are,” he said. “I think we have the talent to be top 25, but they have to believe that they’re that good. We’re deep — our fifth player was third for us last year, and she can really play.”
The Puerto Rico trips would never have happened without the connections and history of ECU men’s head coach Andrew Sapp, who came to Greenville from UNC-Chapel Hill last summer with a history of taking teams to the Puerto Rico Classic for a quarter of a century. The tournament always features a talented field and beautiful surroundings, and since Sapp has spent so much time in Puerto Rico he was grateful to give back to the country in some way.
The golf course at Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa was in excellent shape, he said, which was in part due to the fact that it hasn’t been played much since the storm in September. But the resort will open to tourists early this month, and Sapp is optimistic about seeing significant progress when he returns with the squad next February.
“It was eye opening to see that the hotel itself was full of electrical workers,” he said. “And when we drove in, there was an entire parking lot that was full of a fleet of electrical trucks that they were just using to go around the island to put wires up and help get electricity up. But the island is open for business.”
The men’s team has set a season goal of making it to NCAA regionals, said sophomore team member Patrick Stephenson, and the team boosted its confidence by toppling a couple of ranked teams and persevering through the windy conditions in Puerto Rico. With plenty of competition left before the conference tournament in late April, Stephenson believes that the worthwhile lessons — and the improvements that come along with them — will keep presenting themselves.
“There were a lot of positives from this week,” he said. “If we can just go take care of business right now, we should move up in the rankings and then we’ve got some more tournaments after that. We’re definitely trending in the right direction.”