Natural disasters like hurricanes might strike every socioeconomic class equally, but it’s a fact that those with more resources are better equipped to weather the wind and rain and recover from their effects.
The same was true for intercollegiate athletic teams that found themselves in the path of Hurricane Florence last week.
Consider a team like East Carolina football, which is the top of the Pirate food chain in terms of budget and profitability. In a decision that took all of the right things into account and factored history into the equation, Coach Scottie Montgomery opted to take all of his players and support staff to Orlando for ten days to stay out of harm’s way and prepare for Saturday’s game against the University of South Florida.
Coach Jason Hamilton, in his first season leading the ECU women’s soccer team, would have liked the opportunity to keep his team together for training during the past week, especially since his Pirates are 5-1-2 heading into the American Athletic Conference opener against Tulsa tonight. But a non-revenue program doesn’t have the money to move its whole team to a neutral location, so the players all scattered to their own or teammates’ homes last Tuesday or Wednesday and came back to campus on Monday.
“Obviously, we can’t control it, but it’s definitely a disadvantage, because we sent all our kids away, so we weren’t able to train for three and a half days there, which was tough,” Hamilton said.
The Pirates, who also missed their final non-conference game when the matchup scheduled for last Thursday against UNC-Wilmington was cancelled, put in extra practice time when they returned to prepare for the road trip to Tulsa.
Junior back Jayda Hylton-Pelaia, a native of Toronto who went home with a teammate to Charlotte, was quick to point out that every one of the players took their training seriously when they were away from ECU.
“We came back ready,” she said. “We didn’t treat it as a vacation. We all trained as if we were in season.”
If the Pirates were going to have to endure an interruption, at least it came after the win that Hamilton calls “the best game we’ve played overall on both ends of the ball.” As they defeated the UNC-Charlotte squad 3-0 on September 9, Hamilton saw defensive tenacity in the shutout and the use of new tools on offense.
Hylton-Pelaia’s vital role in both of the Pirates’ victories that weekend – the UNCC game and a 2-0 win over Campbell – resulted in her second selection in less than a month as the American Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Week.
Hylton-Pelaia’s speed and aggression on defense is certainly one contributor to such accolades, but she stands out from others in her position because of her growing role on offense. She has already logged one goal and three assists in the team’s first eight games—unusual stats for a defender.
She wasn’t responsible for any goals or assists in either of her first two seasons at ECU.
“I think now that I realize how dangerous it can be, I try to get forward as much as possible,” she said. “I think it really catches teams off guards and it helps our forwards out.”
As one of the few upperclassmen playing significant minutes on a young squad, Hylton-Pelaia is working to become more vocal and encouraging to her teammates, and Hamilton tells her regularly that is looking for her to emerge as a leader.
After an uninvited break in routine, the Pirates are ready to compete again, and even though the American plays a formidable brand of soccer the women on the team understand what it will take to continue to win, Hamilton said.
“Charlotte had a good attacking player, but in our conference she would be an average player,” he said. “Every team (in the American) has a very special player, so we need to be able to shut that person down, and be able to create chances. That’s what we’ve been trying to coach all year, that conference games are going to come down to one play every game. So we just have to be prepared for those moments and make the big plays when we can.”
No one in or around Johnson Stadium is complaining about the fact that the football team got to spend the week in Orlando and they had to find a place to sleep and work out while a hurricane cut a huge swath through the Carolinas. The presence of haves and have-nots is a firm reality in college athletics, and with a superior record and more conference recognition than football already this season, the soccer team has the edge in the categories that matter.
Acts of God will come and upend even the most disciplined coach’s plans, but Hamilton likes what he sees from his players even through hardship, and he has every reason to believe they will continue to use that resiliency to prosper.
“Our team has just done really well handling adversity so far this year,” he said. “So it’s just one more thing we can put on the list.”