Before my family moved to Eastern North Carolina two decades ago, I spent seven years in Cleveland County, NC, just a few miles from the campus of Gardner-Webb University. We spent time in the tiny burg of Boiling Springs, got to know GWU students and enjoyed an occasional cultural event on campus. The thing we never did, though, was think twice about the Running’ Bulldogs’ basketball team.
GWU hoops was languishing in Division II oblivion in the ‘90s when I lived nearby. In fact, the sum total of the Bulldogs’ postseason history, until this week, was one losing appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament, one losing appearance in the CBI and one losing appearance in the CIT.
That all changed last weekend, when Gardner-Webb won the Big South Tournament to punch its first ever ticket to the Big Dance. I still have friends who are administrators and alumni, so I celebrated with them as they saw their little college bask in Selection Sunday glory.
But I couldn’t help but consider, as I have so often, how the Pirate Nation would exult if it was given a taste of that March basketball wonder.
I have been in the room with East Carolina players who saw their name on an NCAA baseball selection show, and I got to interview women’s basketball coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener and her players when they went dancing in 2007. But the last time the men’s team breathed that rarified air, in 1993, I was in the western part of the state dismissing Gardner-Webb’s Division II prospects. And I’m far from the only one hoping with every ounce of hope that this community can soon celebrate a place on that hallowed bracket.
It was a happy bit of serendipity that on Selection Sunday, when ECU’s basketball equipment managers had already washed and stored all of the uniforms until November, Pirates pitcher Jake Kuchmaner did something so spectacular that it got the attention of even the most die-hard college basketball fans across the state. His perfect game, capping a sweep of Maryland, gave Pirate fans visions of June regionals and dreams of super regionals and lessened the sting of another basketball year without a postseason.
Kuchmaner’s perfect game was historic, but glimmers of ECU greatness aren’t restricted to the baseball diamond this spring. Women’s tennis is 15-2, the softball team went 4-1 in a tournament at George Mason and the lacrosse team has already more than doubled its win total from its inaugural season last year, with seven games left.
Life in the doldrums has certainly been a reality in the Pirate football and basketball worlds, but the spirit of ECU fans is a powerful force. I might not have experienced the pandemonium of Selection Sunday in the Pirate Nation, but through twenty years of watching this rollercoaster I feel qualified to predict that better views are ahead. March Madness will be relevant in Greenville again, big bowl games will feature Pirate purple soon and sports that haven’t won a conference title in years will finish on top.
The catalyst with the most power to bring ECU to those lofty places? New and assertive leadership.
Athletic director Jon Gilbert is showing up in every space where Pirates compete, asking questions and listening intently on a pursuit of sustained excellence.
Football coach Mike Houston is kicking spring practice up several notches, majoring in toughness and fundamentals, tolerating no slackers and promising “fast, decisive football.”
Basketball coach Joe Dooley turns immediately to 2019-’20, a clean slate already beckoning and talented recruits ready to take part in the reclamation project.
I never saw it coming when I lived down the street from Gardner-Webb. This time, influenced by the powerful hope of this Pirate Nation, I’m predicting that these faithful fans will soon have a reason for a serious celebration.