The East Carolina softball team got to grab a piece of history with its first-ever game against Duke on Wednesday, but the hot ECU squad made sure it wasn’t a creating a historical highlight for the fledgling Blue Devils, defeating the visitors 4-1 on a chilly Greenville afternoon.
It was a significant win for a handful of reasons.
The victory was the fifth in a row and the eighth out of the past nine for a Pirate team that has found its stride after losing twelve straight in late February and early March.
It was a quality win against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent in their first-ever meeting, and it formed a perfect springboard to the opening of the American season, which commences Friday against Houston.
“We just wanted to come out here today, and first time ever seeing them, we were really excited about that,” said senior Alex Mycek. “And I think that excitement coming out here helped put a fire behind us, and when we scored some runs we knew we could continue that.”
Duke approved the addition of a softball program late in 2013 and hired head coach Marissa Young in mid-2015, but the team didn’t play its first game until February 8 of this year. Despite a roster of players new to the college game, the Blue Devils came into Wednesday’s contest 16-11 with victories over programs like Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State.
Young spent nearly three years preparing to launch the new program by recruiting players who would be willing to come in as freshmen in 2016 and wait a full season to actually compete, bringing in a second recruiting class this fall and keeping an eye on the construction of the new $9 million stadium on Duke’s East Campus.
The Duke trailblazers have already experienced plenty of success and the satisfaction of knowing everything they do is a first, but Wednesday was ECU’s day.
The productive bats of Tate McClellan and Mycek and the pitching-by-committee of Erin Poepping, Ashley Cruise and Whitney Sanford helped build and maintain the lead that the Pirates established in the first inning.
That first rally was the Pirates’ most vital of the afternoon, starting with McClellan’s two-run, two-out home run after Mycek reached base on a single. In the fourth inning Mycek crossed home plate again, this time on a bases-empty homer that landed over the left field fence in roughly the same spot as McClellan’s hit.
Later in the same inning, Duke pitcher Amanda Wiercioch loaded the bases, and Karlie Smith scored on a walk from Tyler King to give the Pirates a 4-0 lead.
The fifth inning represented Duke’s best chance for a comeback and provided ECU a chance to build resiliency with the most important part of its season just ahead.
First Blue Devil sophomore Raine Wilson hit an RBI single to score Jameson Kavel, and then Duke loaded the bases with two outs just after Cruise came in to relieve starting Pirate pitcher Erin Poepping.
One big hit would have wiped away ECU’s lead, but a pop-up to right field found the glove of Ashley Weingartz, and the near-crisis was averted.
“It’s really our pitchers coming out of the bullpen that are keeping us in these games and also keeping the momentum in the dugout,” said ECU head coach Courtney Oliver. “They’re going out there and they’re executing, and they’re getting those big hitters out, and our team feeds off of that on the offense.”
The Pirates’ confidence grows with every win, Oliver said, both on the offensive side with hot bats like those of McClellan and Mycek and on defense with a growing harmony among the members of the pitching staff. Some college teams feature one pitcher the majority of the time, but ECU is polishing a team-based pitching approach that is serving to keep pitchers fresh and allow the coaches to use each athlete during the part of the game when she is most effective.
““They’re starting to figure out working out well as a pitching staff, rather than four individuals,” Oliver said.
On a day with weather so inclement that the baseball team’s game at UNC-Wilmington was postponed, the softball Pirates played on before a diehard group of fans. But this weekend, with a three-game series against visiting Houston and temperatures that are slowly climbing, the players and coaches expect a spirited crowd — a fan showing worthy of a team with the momentum and talent to make a run toward its first postseason bid since 2011.