ECU looks to leave C-USA with a title
East Carolina wants to leave Conference USA with a title.
The Pirates enter their final season in the league they’ve called home since 1997 as a favorite to claim a third title in six years.
East Carolina and Tulane are leaving C-USA for the American Athletic Conference beginning next season.
Coach Ruffin McNeill says he welcomes the high expectations that come with being picked by his fellow C-USA coaches as the favorite in the East Division.
He says the Pirates “have a target on our back and will get everybody’s best shot.”
With a strong core of returning players — 16 starters are back, including quarterback Shane Carden and running back Vintavious Cooper — East Carolina has plenty of reasons for optimism.
Here are five things to watch in East Carolina’s final season in C-USA:
1. HANDLING SUCCESS. The Pirates seem to be at their best when they have a chip on their shoulder and something to prove, and the biggest key this year will be how they handle being one of the marquee programs in a transitioning Conference USA that is welcoming new members while watching others leave for the American conference. McNeill says this team has a strong leadership core that is “one of the largest we’ve had here to help our team” and “will not let us have a bad practice or a bad day of work.” He hopes those leaders will keep the Pirates focused during their final season before they jump to a more challenging conference.
2. ANOTHER TOUGH ROAD. The Pirates always fill their schedule with difficult non-conference opponents and this year is no exception. They play host to Virginia Tech and visit North Carolina in consecutive games, then travel to North Carolina State in their next-to-last game. If they can find some success against the Hokies and Tar Heels, those two early-season out-of-league games could set the tone for a run through a much more navigable Conference USA schedule.
3. AIR RAID. East Carolina has always loved to throw the ball under McNeill, and Carden emerged from a four-man competition last season to seize the quarterback job. He was third in the league with a 143.01 pass efficiency rating, ranked fourth with nearly 240 yards passing per game and was fifth in total offense with an average of 245 yards. He’s the clear-cut leader of the offense this year and McNeill is counting on him to put up even bigger numbers in his second season as the starter. It helps that he will be throwing to top target Justin Hardy, who caught seven passes per game last season and led the team with 11 touchdowns.
4. THEY CAN RUN, TOO. Cooper, a 1,049-yard rusher in 2012, had four 100-yard rushing performances last season while winning the league’s newcomer of the year award. That run included three in a row — the first time a Pirate rusher did that since 2003. McNeill needs him to continue to produce so that opposing defenses can’t simply focus on the passing game.
5. DEFENSE MUST IMPROVE. The Pirates know their defense has to be better this season after giving up averages of nearly 450 total yards and 32 points a year ago in the offensive-dominated C-USA. They allowed opponents to score at least 40 points five times — giving up 56 to Navy, 59 to Marshall in the regular-season finale and 43 in a New Orleans Bowl loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. Eight starters are back from that unit, including LB Derrell Johnson, who led the team in sacks, tackles for lost yardage, fumble recoveries and quarterback pressures. McNeill says the defensive players “have grasped from (coordinator Rick Smith), his staff and I like the way they’ve attacked and embraced it.”
Predicted order of finish in Conference USA: First place in East Division.
WESTCHESTER TENNIS FALLS IN OPENER
HIGH POINT — Trinity School of Durham topped Westchester Country Day School’s girls 6-3 in the season opener for both teams on Friday.
Erica Sawyer and Sophie Lanham won in singles for the Wildcats and teamed for a doubles victory.
Westchester will host Carolina Friends Friday at 3:30 at Willow Creek.
HPCA VOLLEYBALL TOPS WESTCHESTER IN FOUR GAMES
HIGH POINT — Sydney Rowan made 25 kills, while Rachel Cox recorded 34 assists as High Point Christian Academy topped Westchester Country Day School 25-21, 21-25, 25-17, 25-23 in the season opener for both teams on Friday night.
Olivia Owen made 22 digs for the Cougars, who play host to Village Christian on Thursday at 5:45 p.m.
HPU WOMEN’S SOCCER DROPS EXHIBITION MATCH
CULLOWHEE — The High Point University women’s soccer team lost to Western Carolina, 5-0, in its lone exhibition match of the season Friday night. Senior goalie Jesse May made eight saves in the loss.
Freshman Jenny Marshall led the Panthers with three shots including one on goal. HPU put up 11 shots with eight on frame in the match.
“Tonight was a great learning experience for our young players,” head coach Marty Beall said. “We had 11 or 12 players for whom this was their first college action. We are a little banged up right now so this game gave us a chance to give a lot of players quality minutes. I was pleased with the things we were able to do offensively. That has been a focus of our preseason and we did pretty well with the things we have been preaching. I am very confident that this resilient team will be ready when the season starts next weekend.”
The game remained scoreless until the 35th minute when the Catamounts’ Kayla Sedgley opened the scoring with a goal off a pass by Christine Cockrell. Cockrell added a second assist in the 42nd minute when Western added to its lead with a goal off the head of Christine Kaznowski and went into the locker room at the half up 2-0.
Western Carolina added three goals in the second half to win by a final margin of 5-0. Madison Lee scored for WCU in the 47th minute, Tara Bidnick scored in the 61st minute and Kasey Cooke scored in the 77th minute.
The regular season begins for High Point on Friday, Aug. 23, when the team travels to Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. The Panthers open their home schedule on Sept. 1 with a game against Georgia Southern at 2 p.m.
UNC’S CUNNINGHAM SAYS HAIRSTON WILL PLAY THIS SEASON
CHAPEL HILL — Even though North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston remains suspended indefinitely in the wake of his reckless driving charge last month, it appears to be a pretty safe bet the high-scoring junior will suit up for the Tar Heels this season.
North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham confirmed as much Thursday while speaking at a retreat for the university’s journalism faculty.
Asked whether Hairston would play for the Tar Heels this coming season, Cunningham responded, “Yes, but not all the games.” North Carolina journalism professor Andy Bechtel relayed the comment via Twitter, later explaining his decision to report Cunningham’s response by quipping, “It is the journalism faculty’s retreat after all.”
SIMSON-DETWEILER CAPTURE N.C. SENIOR FOUR-BALL
BERMUDA RUN — The Raleigh duo of Paul Simson and Don Detweiler carded 21-under 195 to post a six-stroke victory in the N.C. Senior Four-Ball Championship that concluded Thursday at Bermuda Run Country Club.
Simson-Detweiler shot rounds of 62, 69 and 64 over the 6,543-yard, par-70 layout.
The High Point duo of David Millis and Kim Mansfield took sixth at 60-70-66—205. High Point’s Ernie Newton and Jamestown’s Larry Boswell tied for seventh at 69-68-69—206, along with High Point’s Mike Bivins and Greensboro’s Trip Gentry (68-67-71) and one other team.
Jamestown’s Jim Pridgen and Durham’s Don Slater tied for 27th at 71-70-72—213, while High Point’s Brad Burris and Raleigh’s Sid Aldridge shared 29th at 71-69-74—214.
JOHNSON JOINS HPU ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT STAFF
HIGH POINT — Taylor Johnson has joined the High Point University Athletic Department as Assistant Director of Development, it was announced on Friday. Johnson most recently was Assistant Director of annual Giving and Alumni Engagement at Greensboro College.
In his role, Johnson will assist in reaching out to alumni and fans, engaging more involvement with HPU Athletics. He will assist with the Panther Club, special events and will work alongside the University’s Alumni Association.
Originally from Greensboro, Johnson attended UNC Greensboro and graduated with a degree in Psychology in 2007.
WOODALL HOLDS TWO-SHOT LEAD IN EGOLF RIVER HILLS CLASSIC
LAKE WYLIE, S.C. — Bruce Woodall of Yanceyville carded a 2-under 70 in Friday’s third round of the eGolf Tour’s River Hills Classic to stand 7-under 209 and take a two-stroke lead into today’s final round.
Chris Epperson of Hilton Head Island, S.C. and Sunny Kim of Sunny Kim of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. share second at 5-under 211.