East Carolina head volleyball coach Julie Torbett knows that a Purple-Gold game isn’t likely to produce any earth-shattering revelations about her team. After all, her players have been competing against each other for months.
But the intra-squad scrimmage on Tuesday — staged with fans, uniforms, music in Minges Coliseum and all of the other game-day effects — did prepare her newcomers for the upcoming schedule and give her the opportunity to see a match through the eyes of a Pirate fan while her assistant coaches led the two teams.
It was an ideal sendoff for two consecutive road trips that will see the team facing seven different opponents.
“It was nice to see them in a jersey, kind of shake the dust off, and get the jitters out,” said Torbett, who is starting her sixth year leading the ECU program. “We have a lot of new people, so that was kind of their first competition in Minges.”
“It really showed us what we did well, what we need to work on, how well we connect with each other,” said sophomore setter Shelby Martin, a Preseason American Athletic Conference Team selection.
The event also gave Torbett encouraging glimpses at some of her athletes in conditions closer to match play, most notably newcomers and those who played sparingly last year. With five freshman (members of a highly touted recruiting class) and four transfers, the team looks considerably different than it did last year, but the talent upgrade is evident to anyone who spends time around this version of the Pirates.
“I think our confidence level is so much higher than it was last year,” Martin said. “Last year was our first big win season. This year the expectations and the pressure are so much higher, our confidence, we just know we can go out there. We’re not intimidated.”
Last year’s Pirates finished 22-11 and 13-7 in the AAC, and even though they were picked to finish seventh out of twelve in the AAC this season they are not behaving like a team that believes it is seventh best.
Torbett knows that anything can happen in the course of a season, so she is reluctant to make grand predictions, but she will say, “I feel like we’re a pretty solid team.”
Standouts among the new arrivals include freshman S’Mara Riley, a middle blocker from Encino, CA, who is expected to contribute right away, and sophomore outside hitter Sydney Kleinman, a transfer from Minnesota who played in 30 sets for the Golden Gophers last season.
Another middle blocker, junior Toya Osuegbu, has been a Pirate for two years already but seems poised to become a major inside force.
One of the most encouraging parts of the scrimmage for Torbett was watching Osuegbu’s performance and recognizing that her development, as she has moved through the ECU program, has proceeded precisely as her coaches would have mapped it out.
“I watched Toya play last night, and she didn’t play very much at all as a freshman,” said Torbett of the player who led the Pirates in total blocks last year as a sophomore. “She looked amazing last night. So when you see things like that, you know the process is working — everything from our strength and conditioning program, our athletic trainer, all the support staff, to help an athlete like that progress at that rate, to come in and not play at all as a freshman to do what she was doing last night. She was perfect after the first set — no errors, all kills.”
The Pirates will open their season Friday against Spring Hill State and Alcorn College in their first two games of the Southern Miss Classic, followed by a meeting with the host Golden Eagles on Saturday. The following weekend they will travel to a tournament at Tennessee Tech, where they will play Hampton and USC-Upstate as well as the hosts. On the way home from Tennessee, they will stop for a Sept. 2 game at N.C. Central.
At long last, on Sept. 6, ECU will take its home floor as the host of the Pirate Invitational, featuring Gardner-Webb, Eastern Washington and UNC-Charlotte. The players know that they will be chomping at the bit to return to Minges Coliseum after two weeks on the road, and they are already strategizing marketing techniques to get as much of the Pirate Nation there as possible.
Sophomore right side hitter Bri Wood said that the players will be hitting social media hard, since they know the Snapchat and Instagram stories are the most likely way to attract their peers to home matches. And Martin made it known that she expects a loud, highly engaged arena full of fans.
“We want this place packed,” she said. “We want the band to be here, Minges Maniacs. Honestly, we just want a bigger, louder crowd.”