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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

By Bethany Bradsher

ECU soccer reloads with new talent

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Last season the East Carolina soccer team did almost everything right, with one misstep in the Conference USA tournament costing the program a postseason bid that had seemed like a sure thing.

With just one game — a victory — under their belts, the 2009 Lady Pirates are reloaded with a dozen newcomers who want nothing more than to finish what the 2008 team started.

With just two seniors, the Lady Pirates will rely on some younger talent to take them to their second consecutive conference title, but before the C-USA slate commences they’ll face Wake Forest, N.C. State and UNC-Wilmington. The two ACC opponents are road trips for ECU, but when rival UNCW comes to Greenville on Sept. 20, the Lady Pirates will look to uphold the reputation of having a daunting home field with spirited fans.

“Definitely, our home opener is really a big one,” sophomore Jessica Woodward said of last week’s Virginia Commonwealth game. “We tried to spread the word for that one as much as possible. I think we keep trying to spread the word more and more every year.”

Fan support is directly related to victories, and as the 14-4-4 team was amassing wins last year the Pirate Nation took notice. During the C-USA schedule, ECU won 12 consecutive games en route to the conference tournament, where it finally lost to Memphis in the final game.

Citing insufficient strength of schedule, the NCAA decided not to offer the Lady Pirates an at-large bid to the postseason tournament.

“Last year was amazing, to finally taste that and to be on top,” said senior co-captain Jessica Swanson, who is leading the squad with five game-deciding goals after shooting the game winner against VCU. ”Of course you want to take it further. You want to take it to the next level, and that’s my goal this year is to win the conference tournament and make it to the NCAA tournament.”

After losing seven starters from that regular season championship squad, ECU coach Rob Donnenwirth is relying on a youth movement that includes 12 newcomers and eight sophomores. The freshman class features players like forward Chrissy Gratz of Sunrise, FL, named the 2008 Broward County Player of the Year, and four young women who participated in the North Carolina Olympic Development Program.

Even with limited Division I experience, sophomores Woodward and Rachel Fuller said that the younger players have already earned their teammates’ confidence.

“I think they have a lot to add to the team,” Woodward said. “We’re excited about that.”

“We’re deeper with them, too,” said Fuller. “Our bench is deeper.”

In the preseason, Coach Donnenwirth focused on creating the optimal combinations of players, seeking to create chemistry at positions where the team lost key players from last year.

“When you’re in the back and you lose four backs, it’s not easy to piece together that group,” said Donnenwirth, who is poised to notch his 100th win with the Pirates if the squad defeats Gardner-Webb on Sunday. “It’s not about individual play, it’s about playing together in the back. It’s more about them finding the right combinations. That’s what we’ve been working on a lot.”

With their August 21 victory over VCU, the Lady Pirates brought the overall program record to .500, at 131-131-30. By the end of the season, they hope to make that mark as lopsided as possible with a little help from their fans. They finally have a solid base of loyal fans, but the players know that there is just one way to keep those fans coming back.

“You get that publicity from winning, and that’s basically we have to keep doing and keep people coming,” Swanson said.

E-mail Bethany Bradsher.

Bethany Bradsher Archives

08/26/2009 02:19:05 AM

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