From start to finish, East Carolina enjoyed several signature moments on the hardwood, baseball diamond and of course, the gridiron in 2013 that may lead some to call it ‘the most fruitful year in school history.'
Most notably, the Pirates' men's basketball team captured its most wins as a Division I school (23) en route to a CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament title and the football team reached the 10-win mark for just the second time in school-history.
Off the field, ECU waved goodbye to Terry Holland in May and brought in Jeff Compher to replace him as the Director of Athletics. It did not take long for Compher to make an impact – he retained Billy Godwin as the school's head baseball coach, extended football coach Ruffin McNeill's contract and gave Pirate fans what they have long asked for: new black uniforms.
Consequential to having so much material to choose from, trimming a list to just a few moments is nearly an impossible task without creating some disagreement. So here goes – our list of the top three ECU sports moments of 2013 …
3. Pirates end drought in Chapel Hill
It only took 38 years, but ECU finally was able walk into Kenan Stadium and leave with a victory on Sep. 28. To put that in perspective, McNeill was a senior in high school when it last happened.
The Pirates did not need any gimmicks or last-second heroics to pull it off, either. Rather, they thoroughly dominated the Tar Heels on offense, defense and special teams in a surprising 55-31 result.
|ECU celebrates in Chapel Hill|
ECU's attack was balanced as well, – senior tailback Vintavious Cooper scampered for 186 yards – controlled the ball for over 36 minutes and ran 101 offensive plays.
After the final seconds elapsed, Carden sprinted to the large contingent of ECU fans at Kenan, climbed a small ladder and conducted the student band as it played the school's alma mater.
"It was something I've always wanted to do and the opportunity presented itself. I went up there and it was an awesome feeling," he said after the game. "We have a great group of fans in the Pirate Nation and this one is for them.
"Not a lot of people thought we could win this one, but it felt great to come out here and do it."
2. Richmond seals CIT Championship on game-winning 3-pointer
It is the moment every kid dreams about growing up. An opportunity to drain a last-second shot to win a championship game and cut down the nets. The Pirates had a flare for the dramatic throughout the 2012-2013 season and in their run through the CIT, mostly having to come from behind in order to win.
April 3's championship game at Weber State was no different and junior Akeem Richmond had the chance to live a childhood dream.
ECU trailed 71-65 with less than three minutes remaining, inside a building the hosting Wildcats were 18-1 leading up to the game. And rather than crumbling, the Pirates came alive and closed the game on a 12-3 run – culminating with Richmond's 3-pointer as time expired.
Officials had to check the replay monitors to assure Richmond let go of the ball in time, but there was no question. ECU won 77-74.
Players poured onto the court immediately following the shot, celebrating with anybody wearing the proper shade of purple, and shortly after the call was officially upheld, Head Coach Jeff Lebo was hoisting up the CIT Championship trophy and cutting down the nets.
The victory sealed the program's first postseason tournament title and tied its highest win-total since 1954; long before ECU joined Division I.
The team was welcomed by a large crowd when it arrived just past 4 a.m at Pitt-Greenville Airport. And for those who have followed the program closely over the years, let me say that again. Dozens of fans showed up at 4 a.m. to greet an ECU basketball team. This was just three years after the Pirates suffered their 13th straight losing season.
On a wider scale, the moment earned Pirates basketball visibility on a national scale and respect among the college basketball powers nearby in the Triangle. After all, only four Division I teams get to cut down the nets every season.
1. Carden's first career reception seals bowl victory
ECU was looking to break the Ohio Bobcats' back late in the fourth quarter of the Beef ‘O' Brady's Bowl, leading 24-20. After seeing its early 14-0 advantage evaporate, McNeill did not put anything up to chance and went deep into his playbook.
On what McNeill called the "Cam" play, Carden fired a screen pass to wide receiver Cam Worthy in the backfield and took off for the end-zone. Worthy then looked up, lofted a jump-ball for his quarterback and Carden delivered. He leapt up against two Ohio defenders and came down with his first career catch – a 14-yard touchdown.
The score put the Pirates ahead by two possessions, 31-20, inside of seven minutes left to play and McNeill thought the timing of the trick-play was perfect.
|Zeek Bigger after ECU's Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win|
"He made that play in double-coverage like he's been doing it for a long time."
Cooper, who rushed for a career-best 198 yards in his final collegiate game, capped ECU's 20-point surge in the fourth quarter on a 22-yard touchdown run. He was later named the game's most valuable player.
And without the drama, the Pirates knew they were going to win their first bowl game since 2007 as time winded down at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
There was not a frown to be found on any of the Pirates' faces after the clock showed three zeroes. McNeill received a Gatorade shower, players posed together for photos, most of them wearing black Beefs Bowl Championship hats and offensive lineman Ike Harris was even knighted on the field by the school's mascot "Pee-Dee, the Pirate."
Seeing his players celebrate was the biggest thrill for McNeill, who enjoyed the same experiences as an ECU player in 1978 and 1979, and he did not want to take away anything from what they accomplished.
"It's all about the players. It has nothing to do with me at all," he said. ""I'm proud of the program because when the players win, the program wins. And when the program wins, the University wins and I'm just blessed to be a part of it all."