From the outside, three coaches in ten weeks looks like a recipe for turbulence, especially when the latest leadership change comes less than two weeks before conference play opens.
But the East Carolina women’s basketball team, from the acting head coach to the staff of assistants to the players, believe together that their devotion to each other, their work ethic and their tenacity can outflank the upheaval they have experienced.
In fact, senior point guard Alex Frazier believes that her team has already surprised observers with a 9-4 record. She relishes the idea of the Pirates putting together an inspiring story of overcoming with a surprisingly triumphant ending.
“It will be one for the books,” she said.
When Heather Macy, who led the Pirates for eight seasons, resigned on October 17 after an internal review of her program, assistant coach Chad Killinger was named interim head coach two weeks before the season opener. Killinger led the squad for eleven games before stepping down because of an undisclosed health problem.
On December 26, Nicole Mealing learned that she was the latest coach to make the quick rise from assistant to acting head.
Mealing, who played for Macy at Francis Marion and spent four years as ECU’s video coordinator before becoming an assistant coach in 2016, had no designs on a head coaching position at this point in her career.
“I wasn’t looking to be in this role at all,” she said. “This caught me completely off guard. But I think Coach Macy, who’s the all-time winningest coach in this program’s history, she did a good job of preparing me. So this was handed to me, and I’m just taking advantage of it.”
The key to managing this whirlwind, Mealing said, is intense collaboration with assistant coaches Celeste Stewart, Eboni Fields and Hayley Hollis. Every one of the women has taken on new responsibilities, Mealing said, and they have stepped up to support Mealing and make sure the change is as smooth as possible for the players.
“The assistant coaches that we have on staff now have done a really good job at just having my back on everything,” she said. “The players, they’re just great to deal with, they’ve got my back. When it was announced, they just came and everybody gave me a hug.
“We’re all seeing this as an opportunity to grow. We’re just taking it one day at a time and trying to win every day.”
After two losses to Duke and UNC-Wilmington to close out the non-conference slate, the Pirates leave Friday for New Orleans to face Tulane in their American Athletic Conference opener. In practice, Mealing has focused on improving the team’s physicality and accuracy on the boards, since they have been outrebounded by a number of opponents in the first part of the season.
Off the court, Mealing is encouraging injured players to follow their recovery regimen to the letter in hopes that they can return to the court soon. Starting point guard Lashonda Monk, the team’s second-leading scorer, missed the UNC-Wilmington game.
Throughout the first 13 games, different Pirates have emerged each night, helping to mitigate the absence of injured players. Frazier believes that such consistency across the lineup is a credit to recruiting and preparation.
“Our coaches did a great job recruiting, so all of our players are capable of doing a lot of different things,” said Frazier. “So, it’s just kind of staying ready so you don’t have to get ready. Everybody’s always ready to contribute in the way that we need them to.”
Junior guard Raven Johnson, who is leading the team with 13.8 points per game, said that the team’s success through late 2018 is a direct result of their belief in one another and their attention to the things within their realm of control.
“What we can control is playing hard, working hard every day in practice and giving our coaches the most we have to give,” said Johnson. “We need to play hard, play with heart, forget about the things going on outside the court lines and just really focus on each game at a time.”