Looking for the soft spots in the American Athletic Conference

Ok…July 1 has come and gone and now ECU’s athletics programs are officially part of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) – or the American, as the league prefers it. Most of us are probably aware that several early predictions, including the league’s football coaches, put the football team squarely in the hunt for the 2014-15 championship, but what about the other sports at ECU? How do we stack up?

For ECU to make a first-year impact, Pirate baseball - with stars like Garrett Brooks - needs to hit the ground running in the AAC.

For ECU to make a first-year impact, Pirate baseball – with stars like Garrett Brooks – needs to hit the ground running in the AAC.

Is there potential for us to storm the American like Central Florida did last year? Love or hate UCF, they definitely carpe diem-ed the hell out of the day, so to speak (and, yes, I know that the Latin translation isn’t really “seize,” but close enough) in their inaugural season in the new league. Check this, UCF finished first or second in the following sports: football, baseball, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, softball, and volleyball. Not a bad haul including the cherry on top, of course, was winning the league’s last guaranteed BCS bowl slot, beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

So, can the Pirates do the same in 2014-15. Not so sure, but here are my thoughts on the sports that matter, leaving football off the table since I am about to go blog ballistic on the sport in the coming weeks. It is important to note, here also, that departing Louisville dominated much of the league in pretty much every sport. Those titles will be even within more reach of the Pirates heading in.

In summary, and with the disclaimer that I was not able to do a real in-depth analysis of what each team has returning in each sport, it seems to me that our best opportunities to make a big splash in the new league – other than in Football – lies with the baseball team, women’s cagers, women footballers, and golf and maybe some individual noise in track & field.

Here is my perspective:

Men’s & Women’s Cross Country

On the men’s side, it seems that the AAC – minus Louisville – is a pretty well-distributed league, with team edge going to Cincinnati. On the women’s side, however, the AAC is SMU central with Connecticut cleaning up what’s left over. Anything can happen, but it seems that ECU will have to first strive to be in the mid-pack mix while they adjust to the league nuances before the coaches can start to build for this higher-level of competition. The Pirates men and women both competed well and were middle of the pack programs in the regional, but the AAC is a much more competitive league. Familiarity with SMU may help on the women’s side.

Women’s Soccer

Rising senior Kendall Frey will help keep the Pirate ladies focused for 2015 in the AAC.

Rising senior Kendall Frey will help keep the Pirate ladies focused for 2015 in the AAC.

The Pirates return much of their offensive firepower and their goalkeeper so they should be competitive, but it is highly unlikely that they will be able to displace UCF, which ran away with the league last season. The Knights return their top-4 scorers – who wer stellar. They will be breaking in a new goalie, so perhaps the GAA creates an opportunity, but with UConn and USF in the league, it will be tough for ECU – a true step up in competition. However, I would put ECU in the mix for 2nd through 4th place, which is a nice spot to be in during the first year.

Women’s Volleyball

The good news for ECU in this sport is that new coach Julie Torbett has had a major impact on a program that has never really established any kind of consistent success. Last season, a large step was made – albeit minor compared to the opposition in this league – with the Pirates going 10-8 OOC (though they finished 13-19 overall). The team loses 5 seniors, but has a young core that emerged some last season. HOWEVER, the likelihood of ECU making a run at a title in this league in volleyball is almost certainly nil. With Louisville out of the picture, the league looks to be owned by SMU and UCF (ughhh).

Men’s & Women’s Swimming & Diving

Fortunately for all of the AAC, Louisville has left the building, taking with it, the men’s and women’s swimming and diving titles. On the diving front, the competition is with SMU, Connecticut and Cincinnati for both men and women. In the lanes, it appears that the same three schools, the Mustangs, the Huskies, and the Bearcats stack up as the top competition. Looking at ECU’s best times in similar events, compared to the AAC’s championship times, the Pirates appear to be middle of the pack on an individual comparison basis. However, you swim to the level of the league and if that is the case, the Pirates – who have enjoyed success in the water and from the platform – should be able to rise to the occasion. Louisville was so dominant that it stands to reason that ECU may find itself in the upper echelon if you compare top times to top times in the AAC, sans the Cardinals.

Women’s Basketball

With a star like Jada Payne, the Pirates should be able to push for a top spot in the AAC.

With a star like Jada Payne, the Pirates should be able to push for a top spot in the AAC.

No way in hell I would pick against a team like UConn that went 40-0 last season – unfreakingbelievable. HOWEVER, the Huskies lose about 50% of their offense and defense with the graduation of two key starters from a year ago. The bad news is that the three starters returning are lights out and will easily compete to repeat. They are the likely champs again. Now, the good news is that ECU brings in a senior-laden team that won 22 games a year ago – no slouch either. The Pirates – along with USF – should be in the hunt for a top spot in the league in year 1. Should be interesting to see how we recruit now that we have joined a league with marquee basketball.

Men’s Basketball

Coach Lebo will access to more talent than ever on the recruiting trail.

Coach Lebo will have access to more talent than ever on the recruiting trail.

When Temple and UCF are the bottom feeders of the league, it says a whole lot. The national champs coming out of the AAC (UConn) and Memphis and Cincy, definitely gives us the exposure, but chances are, the Pirates will be yearning for CUSA schedule next year. It is a virtual impossibility that Jeff Lebo (great coach and will get us there) will guide the team to even sniffing the top-tier or mid-tier of the league in 2014-15, but the exposure should allow Lebo all the story lines he needs to fast upgrade the talent with the Pirates. We should be taking the “don’t finish last” mantra to get us through the coming season.

Men’s Tennis

While the ECU tennis team rocked all last season, doing incredibly well, there are two big concerns for the team going into AAC play. First, how do you replace stalwart Joran Vliegen? 2) The Florida teams and Memphis sort of hold control of this league. South Florida and Memphis, particularly are talented and throw in UCF, too. Also, when you lose Vliegen, you lose a guy who not only was nationally ranked and known, he was near unbeatable at #1 in the lineup going 32-8 last season. Looking down the roster, there are some nice players, but certainly not this caliber guy. At best, the Pirates could feel good about finishing in the middle of the pack.

Women’s Tennis

A middle of the pack CUSA team losing its most productive player and several other seniors, doesn’t make for a whole lot of optimism going into the new league. Expect the bottom of the pile for a while as we get after a higher level of talent.

Women’s Golf

With virtually the full roster back, save all-CUSA golfer Fanny Wolte, so the Pirates should have a solid team. The league is tough, but with experience, perhaps ECU can be solid. New courses withstanding, the AAC will be a tough league even once the Pirates know the lay of the land.With league champ Louisville gone, the top of the league looks like SMU, Memphis and of course UCF. UCF particularly will be strong. At best, the Pirates can hope to be similar to how they were in CUSA.

Men’s Golf

Six…that’s a number. Six collegiate All-America selections, 10 all-Region selections and the 2nd seeded SMU team made it to the national team quarterfinals. This is a tough league – given that there are a so many warm-weather schools in the league. Now, CUSA also was no pushover league, but ECU was not really a factor in CUSA a year ago finishing 8th in the league. The Pirates will have to over achieve to make any kind of noise in the AAC in 2014-15.

Men’s & Women’s Outdoor Track & Field

Tynita Butts put ECU in the spotlight in 2014...can the Pirates keep it rollin' in the AAC?

Tynita Butts put ECU in the spotlight in ’14…can the Pirates keep it rollin’ in  AAC?

The speed is at Houston and SMU, the distance at Connecticut, and thank goodness that Louisville is out of the house when it comes to track. The good news for the Pirates is that the track team as always held its own and as it has grown (it used to be primarily sprinters), the accolades have streamed in. There is a proud tradition in Greenville when it comes to track. Unfortunately, the AAC is chock full of talent with the Cougars and Mustangs – and you can kick in UCF – producing beaucoup sprinters. The long distance runners in the northeast are also pretty impressive. ECU, which is coming off a prolific year itsel in the CUSA final go round, will need to continue to expand its programs to be a top-tier program in the new league. If only Tynita Butts had another year remaining…gonna miss her.

Softball

In the AAC, softball will likely be dominated by Central Florida. Boasting a ridiculously talented and young team (they return everyone from the regular season champion team) that made it to the regional finals a year ago. In contrast, our Pirates lose 7 seniors including 6 of the team’s top 7 offensive production providers. Both primary pitchers return for what should be the strength of the team this year. Looking at the rest of the league, South Florida, Memphis, and Houston will be the teams that the Pirates must master in order to thrive in the new league. The Pirates should come in able to compete in the middle of the pack (like 4-6) but will have to see some young talent really peak to contend with the Florida teams, who are cranking on softball 365 days a year. It would be a nice start in the league to finish in that 3 or 4 position in this league.

Baseball

Godwin impact to be seen.

Godwin impact to be seen.

I don’t think the hire of former Pirate catcher Cliff Godwin can be overstated in any manner. With this hire, ECU is on the fast-track back to Super-Regional-knocking-on-the-door-to-Omaha status. He is not only an injection of powerful energy into a program that has started to list a little, but also a true rising star in the collegiate coaching ranks. The man has been at ECU less than a few weeks and has already stunned college baseball gurus by gaining a commitment from D.H. Conley star Bryant Packard who was widely expected to go to North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia. Whether or not the kid ever makes it to ECU (if his draft stock keeps rising) is less important than the message sent and heard by Godwin – we are going to get the best players coming back to ECU.

The Pirates should come in to the league as a top-3   team along with Houston and Central Florida. I expect that Godwin will energize the returning roster, fill with top quality players, and have this baseball team in the thick of it from the jump – year won.

Houston loses their top pitcher and hitter, but have a lot of talent back (plus they are a big JUCO team) and UCF is a young team (and they host the league tourney in 2015) with most of their talent coming back, so expectations for the Pirates are to be in the top 3 and represent the AAC in a Regional. Certainly, among those three, ECU could finish at the top.

 

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