The notion that the new year of 2021 might be better than its predecessor took a hit on Thursday with the announcement that East Carolina was pausing basketball activities due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program.
With the postponement of games on Saturday with Temple and Jan. 20 at South Florida, the Pirates have had eight of 18 scheduled games called off or delayed.
As ECU coach Joe Dooley has said, some form of a season under restrictions is better than not playing at all.
“We probably expected it at some point,” said Dooley of the pause on Thursday via Zoom. “You see it throughout the country.”
The Pirates were scheduled to play at Cincinnati on Wednesday but that game was postponed due coronavirus issues within the Bearcats program.
Dooley said testing is not a predictable thing.
“We have a player who wears a mask when he’s driving by himself and he tested positive,” said the ECU coach.
The Pirates were in Fort Worth last year preparing for their American Athletic Conference Tournament opener against Memphis on March 12 when the 2019-20 season was shut down.
The baseball season ended abruptly with a walk-off loss at UNC-Wilmington on March 11. ECU went 13-4 on the diamond in 2020.
With the development and distribution of vaccines, there are prospects for a return to more normal times in athletics and life in general.
During the course of 2020 there were some highs and lows in each major sport.
The season opener at home against Marshall was rescheduled three times but was never played.
One of the lows was a 27-23 home loss to Navy on Oct. 17 when ECU was without quarterback Holton Ahlers. The Midshipmen went on to go 3-7 overall and 3-4 in the AAC. The Pirates turned to true freshman quarterback Mason Garcia, but the passing game was not up to its usual standard. The aggravating aspect of the setback was that Ahlers had his own test performed when he experienced no symptoms — and was negative.
Pirate Nation speculated about what might have been in the Navy game but the next game at Tulsa on Oct. 30 produced a much more intense reaction.
A series of officiating errors denied ECU a win at Tulsa. The AAC admitted to a video review error that overturned a fumble ruling on the field that would have given the Pirates possession with a 30-27 lead with 1:52 to go.
Sometimes COVID can be a beneficial factor in outcomes.
ECU had never beaten Temple in an AAC game going into their matchup on Nov. 21 in Philadelphia. For various reasons, including the virus, the Owls were down to their fifth-string quarterback and the Pirates took a 28-3 win that included a kickoff return for a touchdown by Tyler Snead.
ECU used that outcome as a springboard to a 52-38 win over SMU in the season finale. The Pirates were 3-6 overall and 3-5 in the AAC, the best record in league play since 2015. ECU led the Mustangs, 45-7, at the half.
A revamped running game that featured true freshman Rahjai Harris, the AAC Rookie of the Year as well as a first team all-conference selection, are among the factors creating optimism for 2021.
The Pirates must overcome the departures of kicker Jake Verity and receiver Blake Proehl. Coach Mike Houston welcomed another recruiting class in December. The caliber of incoming players lately has been impressive.
A 71-68 home win over SMU was a highlight during the 2019-20 season for the Pirates. The Mustangs had drummed ECU, 82-54, in their previous meeting in Dallas in Dooley’s first season back at ECU.
Jayden Gardner is averaging 16.3 points and 7.6 rebounds.
What does the remainder of the season hold?
“One thing I’ve learned in the last three months is not to speculate,” Dooley said.
Proven pitching abounds for ECU, which has been picked as the favorite in the AAC for 2021.
Coach Cliff Godwin has Jake Kuchmaner, Tyler Smith and Gavin Williams among the fleet of available arms.
Multi-talented Alec Burleson was the main personnel loss in an abbreviated MLB draft.
The AAC has expanded its weekend series from three to four games and the LeClair Classic will be three games against one in-state opponent.
There will be no midweek games when league play gets underway.
If the Pirates can hit as well as the program produces a grade-point average, it should be fun to watch — especially if spectator restrictions are lifted.
Athletic director Jon Gilbert has been treading water in a sea of red ink generated by empty stands during the pandemic.
Several sports were cut due to finances. Women’s tennis and women’s swimming were reinstated as a lawsuit was settled.
A more productive television contract through the AAC has helped mitigate the financial issues. Gilbert said roughly $1 million in revenue per home game in football was not there in 2020.
Gilbert also must figure out how to pay for scholarships for returning seniors since no one loses eligibility during COVID times.
Adjustments are the norm.
“Sometimes I come to work and spend eight hours on something I didn’t anticipate,” Gilbert said.