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Pirate Notebook No. 319
Monday, September 10, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Holtz continues success against ACC

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

When Skip Holtz arrived at East Carolina, the Pirates hadn’t beaten a Division I-A non-conference opponent since their victory over Texas Tech in the 2000 Bowl.

And you have to rewind to that year’s season opening victory over Duke to find an ECU win against an ACC foe.

In less than three seasons, there has been a reversal of fortune Down East. After ECU’s thrilling 34-31 victory over North Carolina, Holtz now owns a 4-2 record against the ACC.

“We keep using the term, 'We want to play big-time football in Greenville,' ” Holtz said. “I told them after the Virginia Tech game, that was a big-time environment and they belonged in that type of environment.

“They came out here (Saturday) in a very similar type of environment. We just talk about wanting to play-big football… and they played it.”

The climb began in Holtz’s debut against Duke. Though it was only a 24-21 win over a hapless program — seriously, beating the Devils is hardly a big-time achievement — it at least was a nice statement considering the depths to which ECU’s program had plunged.

Virginia and N.C. State were a different story. Though neither the Wahoos nor the Wolfpack had standout seasons when the Pirates beat them in 2006, both had the more established coaching staffs and had experienced recent postseason success.

East Carolina’s victory over the Tar Heels further validated the Pirates as a regional football presence.

“We’re growing,” Holtz said. “I think that’s a little bit better than before we got here, but I think we’re growing. I think we’re moving in the right direction.

"We still have a long way to go, but I couldn’t be more pleased with the attitude, the way these players are working, and the commitment that they have.”

More wins like Saturday should only increase those commitments — and add a few more along the recruiting trail.

“Hart” breaker

Regardless of the outcome, Ben Hartman wouldn’t forget the night ECU hosted North Carolina.

As the Pirates’ kicker lined up for the game winner, he carried the burden of a community and the memory of three missed field goal attempts heavily on his shoulders. Two seconds separated Hartman from the distinction of either an instant hero, or potential goat.

“One of them looked like a pass,” Holtz said of Hartman’s previous kicks. “His first one, it was so bad. The second one hit the upright and then the third one wasn’t close.”

“So I told him, I said, ‘You’re going to have a chance to come back and hit the game winner.' It’s a 31-all game and there’s not a lot of time left. Everybody’s going to have my head examined if I say this, but Ben’s a really good kicker. The kid just missed three of them.”

It was a surprising outing indeed. Hartman has been fairly accurate during his brief career, so much so that last season he seized some of the kicking duties from Lou Groza candidate Robert Lee.

But at no point during the 2006 season did Hartman face the type of pressure he did with all of his kicks Saturday. Though some might have panicked given the scenario against the Heels, Hartman’s teammates witnessed a calming presence.

“I felt like he was relaxed,” defensive end Khalif Mitchell said. “I felt like he was relaxed for all of his kicks. I just think that he didn’t have his focus. When he got his focus and got his mind in check, everything worked out great.

"I’m even glad Carolina took the timeout because it made him even more confident. He was over there smiling for everybody.”

When his kick sailed through the uprights, that smile was joined by 40,000 more.

Unique perspective

It’s not uncommon for in-state rivals to have amiable relationships that bridge the sidelines. Several on the ECU and UNC-Chapel Hill rosters played either together or against each other on the North Carolina prep circuit.

But few could offer the same perspective on the Pirates-Heels rivalry than Mitchell. After playing two seasons at Carolina and now in his second year in the ECU program, he understands both viewpoints.

“Coach read us an article where Carolina had said that this is not a rivalry,” Mitchell said. ”This is just something that ‘Eastern’ Carolina wants to have. Whether or not (UNC-CH) wins, it’s not that big of a deal. Well, we won.”

Mitchell was very outspoken during the week, joining a handful of North Carolina players who ran some good-natured smack to the media. Only it was Mitchell who proved prophetic, predicting earlier in the week that parties would continue in the tailgate fields well into Saturday night.

“It’s an in-state rival,” Mitchell said. “They were talking very downward towards us. It’s a good win not necessarily just for us, but this whole area… this whole Greenville area.

“East Carolina, we’re coming up. This game was important for our community. This feels good for all those people who had to wait 30-something years and had to watch that last loss (ECU) had against them.”

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09/10/2007 02:14:08 AM

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