As the first new head soccer coach at East Carolina in 20 years, Jason Hamilton has a boatload of tasks as he tries to elevate the program — ramping up conditioning, encouraging leadership on the field, blending transfers in with established Pirate players.
But one key emphasis for Hamilton revolves around what he calls “dirty stats.”
A dirty stat is any measure of soccer that shows a player putting her body on the line for the team, said Hamilton, who came to Greenville from Mississippi State, where he served as the associate head coach. And the more consistently his ECU squad can do things like tackle an opposing player, block a shot, or win a battle for a ball in the air, the more confident Hamilton will be that the Pirates can establish a foothold in a conference that is always highly competitive.
“Obviously, the American Athletic Conference in women’s soccer is extremely tough,” said Hamilton, who compiled a record of 37-19-5 in his first head coaching position was at Troy (AL) University from 2014-16. “So we know we’ve got a long road ahead of us. We did a good job of bringing in some players who can help us right away; we brought in six transfers, they’ve all given us good minutes so far and put numbers on the board for us.”
Despite the influx of transfer players from programs like Clemson, Arkansas, Louisville and Louisiana Tech, the ECU roster tilts toward youth, with 10 freshmen and nine sophomores. Hamilton sees that as an advantage because those players will be able to contribute for a while. But by recruiting transfers heavily and developing the young players simultaneously, he proved that he isn’t content with talk of laying a foundation.
“We’re competitive as a staff, so we want to win right now,” he said. “We don’t want to wait. Our goal is to send the seniors off in the best season that they’ve had in their four years here.”
In preparation to meet that goal, Hamilton has been pushing his athletes to test their limits in practice, and he also had the chance to experiment to find the optimal use of his personnel at exhibition games against Virginia Commonwealth and Gardner-Webb. He had the chance to shuffle the lineup and adjust the schemes in the second half of both games, he said, and he was pleased with the improvement he saw between the 3-2 loss to VCU and the 2-1 victory over GWU. The team attempted 200 more passes in the second game and took 12 shots on goal, and every time the Pirates take the field together they buy into the new program with a little more ownership.
“We’ve really raised the overall standards of the program and the expectations,” Hamilton said. “And when you raise the expectations you have to raise the standards, and they understand that. They’re just going to get better as time goes on.”
One of only three seniors on the squad, senior forward Courtney Cash was responsible for two of the Pirates’ four goals in the exhibition season, embracing the new system even through workouts much harder than what she has been accustomed to.
“It has definitely been an entire new experience for me, the complete playing style and the intensity of every training session,” Cash said. “I personally feel it in my body a lot more, but I honestly see the results. Just from our first scrimmage to the second scrimmage there’s been an improvement. I know there’s a lot more to improve upon — however with the group of girls that we have and the talent we have, it’s definitely achievable.”
For defender Morgan Dewey and the other five transfers who never played in the old system, the adjustment is more about finding their way in a new place.
“Everyone’s really friendly and we have great team chemistry,” Dewey said. “I can’t wait to get out there.”
Hamilton said that he has been impressed with transfers like goalkeeper Melanie Stiles, who transferred from Clemson because she was hungry to play more minutes, even while he has encouraged the younger players to find their voice and become more vocal leaders on the pitch.
ECU opens its regular season on the road Friday night against Virginia Commonwealth, followed by the first home game of the season Sunday night against Radford.
The players know that they will have an easier time filling the seats when they are winning, but they intend to get the word out in hopes that Johnson Stadium will become a true home field advantage by the time conference games roll around at the end of September.