Happy New Year, Pirates fans.
It’s that time of year when the calendar gets turned, the slate is wiped clean and we all get the opportunity to hit the reset button and start over anew.
So as we say goodbye to a 2017 that was anything but memorable for East Carolina athletics, here are a few New Year’s resolutions for the Pirates as we look ahead to 2018:
■ Get back to a bowl game.
This one comes courtesy of Scottie Montgomery. He publicly set the bar for himself in his third season as ECU’s football coach at his postgame press conference in Memphis following the final game of his second season. “I haven’t made a whole lot of guarantees since I got here,” he said. “But we’ll be a better football team and we’re going to go play in the postseason next year.”
It’s an ambitious goal considering that the Pirates went 3-9 in Montgomery’s first two years and that his job will almost certainly be on the line if ECU falls short of the “guarantee.” But it’s also not unrealistic given the nucleus of talent returning, a promising group of redshirts and recruits, the new defensive coordinator and a more manageable nonconference schedule.
■ Don’t throw Holton Ahlers to the wolves (or in this case, the Tar Heels, Hokies, Knights and Bulls) before he’s ready.
The most anticipated member of the aforementioned group of promising redshirts and recruits is quarterback Holton Ahlers. And there’s reason for the excitement. The numbers he put up during his career at Greenville’s D.H. Conley High School are simply eye-popping with 11,198 yards and 145 touchdowns in his four prep seasons.
While Ahlers has the credentials to justify the hype as the program’s potential savior, there’s no need for Montgomery to rush him into action before he’s ready. For one thing, incumbent Gardner Minshew finished the season strong and has established himself as a competent leader to the offense. Then there’s the danger of shattering the kid’s confidence, or worse, getting him hurt, if he’s put into a situation for which he isn’t completely prepared.
This is not to say that Ahlers, whose father is the PA announcer at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, won’t be ready to step right in and play. With the advantage of his early enrollment and participation in spring practice, he’ll have the opportunity to compete for the starting job with Minshew and the other quarterbacks in camp. But he’ll have to earn the job, not have it handed to him.
■ Hire an experienced basketball coach with a proven track record of winning and recruiting.
With a search firm already hired and the Pirates off to an 0-2 start in the AAC, it’s all but certain that interim coach Michael Perry won’t be getting the job on a permanent basis. That means athletic director Jeff Compher will be faced with an important decision once the current season ends.
Though the circumstances surrounding this hire are completely different from football, since there’s nothing to tear down before building back up, Compher needs to learn from that experience and not bring in a new coach in need of on-the-job training. This is a job that requires an experienced leader who has built a winning program and proven his ability to do the kind of creative recruiting necessary to succeed in a situation such as ECU’s.
There should be plenty of viable candidates available, including UNC-Greensboro’s Wes Miller, N.C. Central’s LaVelle Moton, College of Charleston’s Earl Grant and former Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz, to name a few. With a new, state-of-the-art practice facility, a solid home court atmosphere when Minges is filled and a conference affiliation that allows for multiple NCAA tournament bids each season, the attractiveness of the job is better that most give it credit. It’s just a matter of finding the right person to lead the program.
■ Bounce back on the diamond.
A season that started with high hopes, predictions of a conference title and a No. 6 national ranking turned out to be the biggest letdown of 2017 because of a rash of injuries and bad luck. The Pirates started AAC play with 10 straight losses and despite a postseason tournament run that brought them within one win of a redemptive NCAA tournament bid, coach Cliff Godwin’s team finished at 32-28 and out of luck.
Unlike football and basketball, the Pirates’ disappointment figures to be more of a one-year blip than the start of an extended downhill slide. Although Godwin will miss veteran stalwarts such as Evan Kruczynski, Travis Watkins and Eric Tyler, along with top recruit MacKenzie Gore from Whiteville — a first-round MLB draft pick who will never arrive on campus — the dugout is hardly bare. A solid group of holdovers led by freshman All-America Spencer Brickhouse and young arms Trey Benton and Jake Agnos give ECU hope for a quick bounceback. And after a season in which everything that could possibly have gone wrong did go wrong, the Pirates are due for a few breaks.
■ Have patience.
Like losing weight, giving up smoking or getting out of debt, this is the resolution that will be the most difficult resolution to keep. Because while there is reason to believe that things will be better in 2018 than they were in 2017, there is still a long way to go for ECU’s most high-profile programs to reach respectability, let alone competitiveness.
While it’s okay to set the bar high and not accept mediocrity as the norm, it must also be understood that the process of building championship programs takes time.
So take a deep breath and support your school’s teams. Give its coaches — both those on the way in and those in danger of being on the way out — a fair chance to do their jobs and turn their programs around. Revel in victories big and small, whether it’s the first ever victory of ECU’s new women’s lacrosse team or a football victory against UNC on Sept. 8.
And most of all, remember that you’re all in this together and that a ship — especially a Pirate ship — sails smoother when everyone is steering it in the same direction.