Even after a trip to a warm and sunny locale, one of the best parts is returning home. The East Carolina softball team knows that feeling well, as the players prepare for a 10-day home stretch after an intense season-opening trip to Miami.
The first event in that long home stand is the Pirate Clash, a tournament featuring visiting teams Maryland-Baltimore County, St. Joseph’s and Towson. If predicted rainy weather doesn’t alter the schedule, the Pirates will play Friday at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11:30 a.m.
The squad hit the ground running with a trip to the Felsberg Invitational that ended with a 2-3 record. The Pirates defeated St. John’s, then fell in three consecutive matchups with South Carolina, Hofstra and St. John’s before prevailing over host school Florida International.
While they were hoping for better results, ECU freshman pitcher Erin Poepping said that the Florida tournament was about far more than accumulating early victories.
“The trip in general just kind of made us grow in terms of getting comfortable with each other and learning how each other play,” said Poepping, who came to Greenville in the fall from Lino Lakes, MN. “One of the main things I learned this weekend was how supportive this team is of each other. They are really just there to pick each other up.”
Coach Courtney Oliver, who is starting her third season leading the ECU team, echoed her freshman player’s sentiments about the value of getting away together and experiencing a bit of adversity on the front end of the schedule. With five freshman in the lineup, the players needed to experience the reality of Division I competition, and preseason practice alone will never teach those lessons, she said.
“We kind of expected that we were going to run into a couple of issues, and that just doesn’t happen to experienced players,” Oliver said. “Overall, I was really happy with what I saw. We have a very competitive group, and I’m excited for what the future of this program is, just based on these players.”
One of the most freshman-heavy segments of the ECU roster is the pitching staff, but Oliver said that she was pleased with the competitiveness of Poepping and fellow newcomer Whitney Sanford. Poepping was credited with the opening win over St. John’s, and Sanford held the mound for the entire victory over FIU. The pitching staff is aided by juniors Mary Williams and Ashley Cruz.
“I was very impressed with our pitching,” Oliver said. “Even though they’re freshman pitchers, they’re making the big pitch at the big moment with runners in scoring position.”
The bats warmed up more and more as the South Florida trip continued, and in the 6-4 FIU victory Pirate hitters responded to a 4-0 deficit with scoring bursts in the sixth and seventh innings, most notably home runs from two seniors — N.C. State transfer Meredith Burroughs and third baseman Karlie Smith.
Smith, one of only four seniors on the squad, said that she has seen a steady progression of talent and intensity since her arrival in Greenville, and just five games into the season she believes that this group of players is special in terms of rapport with their coaches and unity on the field.
“Every year, we’ve tried to set our standard higher and higher,” she said. “Every year, we’re just trying to build off our mistakes from the years prior, and now I feel like this year we really feel like we have the whole package.”
After the Pirate Clash, the team will host the Pirate Invitational the following weekend before returning to a warm location for their next road swing at the Malahini Kipa Aloha Tournament in Honolulu.
Even though Miami and Hawaii are choice travel locations, the coaching staff and players alike love the atmosphere in the seven-year-old ECU Softball Stadium and welcome the chance to add to their foundation and draw some new fans over the coming ten days.