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Pirate Notebook No. 351
Monday, July 21, 2008

By Denny O'Brien


ECU sets sights on closing the deal

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

MEMPHIS — When Conference USA released its official preseason football poll last week, East Carolina coach Skip Holtz found his team in a familiar position. The Pirates were predicted to finish second in the East division, exactly where the ended each of the last two seasons.

This year, Holtz is hoping for a different scenario than the late-season stumbles that prevented the Pirates from claiming a spot in the C-USA championship game in both 2006 and 2007.

Standing in the way is a slate of eight league opponents, including defending champion Central Florida, which again was selected as the favorite to repeat in the East.

It’s proven to be a perplexing gauntlet in recent years, with the Pirates winning their share of games as the underdog, while losing a few games in which they were favored. Regardless, Holtz says it is time for ECU to finally close the deal on that elusive conference championship.

“I think it is an honor for us to be picked as high as we are,” Holtz said. “I think we have a chance to be a pretty good football team. We have, I believe, 18 players that started a game.

“We have a good nucleus coming back. Our players have worked very hard. Now we want to make that next step. We’ve had the opportunity to play for a division championship the last couple of weeks of the season, but we haven’t been able to close that door. That’s the biggest thing that we need to do right now.”

If they do, it will mark the first ever C-USA title for the Pirates. It also would mark the first conference title of any kind since 1973, when ECU last won the Southern Conference under the direction of Sonny Randle.

Seven coaches have paced the Pirates’ sideline since then, and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium has seen its share of facelifts. There have been many marquee victories and memorable performances, but not a single season in which East Carolina could proclaim dominion over its conference foes.

Granted, most of that time was spent as a Division I-A Independent.

And while Holtz likes the potential of his fourth ECU team, he acknowledges that the mental hurdles facing the Pirates are perhaps bigger than the physical ones.

“I think you have to learn not only how to win, but you have to learn how to handle winning,” Holtz said. “That may be a harder task, because of our human nature, than learning how to win.

“When you win games, you get everybody’s best. You’ve got to be a self-starter. You can’t be motivated because you lost. I don’t know what all those problems were, but we have to address each one of them with this football team. They’re all issues that you have to learn how to handle in order to win.”

Holtz hopes the experience the Pirates have gained the past two seasons — both the experience of painful late-season losses and the experience that now peppers his roster — will propel them to the summit of C-USA.

The post-spring depth chart was filled with 32 upperclassmen, most of whom experienced those late-season losses against Rice (2006) and Marshall (2007) that prevented ECU from playing for the C-USA title.

Now Holtz hopes he can quickly identify team leaders from within his core of veterans, guys who can push some of the younger players to elevate themselves. Leadership was an area of major emphasis during spring practice, though Holtz wasn’t satisfied that anyone emerged to fill that role.

“I’m anxious to see where that leadership goes in fall camp,” Holtz said. “I came out of spring ball with so many guys missing. We had to have a great summer, but we’re going to have to have a great fall camp.

“I’ll get a much better feel of where we are leadership-wise in about a week to ten days into fall camp than I do right now because I haven’t been with them since spring practice.”

Perhaps senior defensive end Zack Slate and senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney will help fill the leadership void. Both accompanied Holtz to Memphis for the annual C-USA Football Media Kickoff, and both have earned the respect of teammates with their play.

Slate has taken an active role during the off-season to make sure that his teammates are meeting their responsibilities both on the field and off.

“I make sure to encourage and keep in touch with as many kids as we can,” Slate said. “I try to keep my eye on them and let them know that I’m thinking about them. I think that means a lot.

“Besides that, I just try to be an example the best way that I can. That’s the best way to hold someone accountable.”

Pinkney finds himself in a unique leadership position of being both a senior and the No. 1 quarterback. Both are distinctions in which leadership is automatically assumed, and Pinkney says he is completely comfortable with that role.

“Being accountable, being disciplined, doing the little things right, doing the right things when the coaches aren’t around, making sure that the other guys are doing the right thing,” Pinkney said. “That’s all about being a leader.

“All of my teammates respect me and that helps me a lot. I know that they count on me, so that makes me a better person and a better player.”

Pinkney understands that he and his teammates must play better this fall for East Carolina to hoist the C-USA championship trophy. Every detail of the offense, defense and special teams must improve, not to mention the mental preparation that is required on a weekly basis.

As ECU has painfully learned, there are no gimmees in C-USA, no luxury of arriving on Saturday and simply going through the motions.

“This league has such great balance,” Holtz said. “When you go down the list, every team has a chance to win it. Every team has some star players and a lot of strengths.

“I would really like to see us as a program take the next step. I can’t sit here and say that this will be the year. That’s why we go play the games.”

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07/21/2008 02:24:47 AM

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