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Cover Story


 

Olympic sports have new home

By J. Eric Eckard

Attendance tripled at women’s softball games this spring after the team began playing in an impressive new stadium that’s the centerpiece of the school’s new Olympic Sports Complex. Similar gains in fan support and student interest are expected this fall when the rest of the complex opens—a soccer stadium and a state-of-the-art facility for track. The complex, enclosed by a graceful brick wall and understated architectural touches, creates what officials say will be an eye-popping new gateway to campus.

Located at the busy corner of Charles and Greenville boulevards adjacent to the football and baseball stadiums, the 16-acre complex will be the first impression of the school for many visitors driving into town. “These facilities will provide generations of students, fans, team members and coaches with a first-class impression of East Carolina University,” says Athletics Director Terry Holland.

The development gives ECU some of the best facilities in North Carolina and in Conference USA. “Positive things are happening on ECU’s campus,” says Tracey Kee, the Pirates’ softball coach for the past 15 years. “This is not just a football school or a baseball school.”

Soccer

In photo: Christianne Cordero, goalkeeper, Amanda Malkiewicz, forward, Kimmy Cummings, forward/midfielder

The new soccer stadium is similar in design and materials as the baseball stadium. The stadium will feature a video scoreboard and a modern press box. The stadium has 1,000 seats, 192 of which are chairbacks. The field is larger than most such facilities, measuring 360 feet from goal line to goal line and 225 feet from sideline to sideline.

With its size, the soccer stadium can more readily host regional tournaments, something ECU could not do until now because its existing soccer facility was too small. “Did we lose recruits because of our old facility? Possibly,” Coach Rob Donnenwirth says. “I think when the stadium is [completed], and they’re coming to games, that’s when it will really kick in.”

East Carolina suspended its men’s soccer program in 2005. In three previous seasons, the men’s team went 7-37-3 and won just two conference games. Holland said then that the program could not continue without “a significant increase in resources” which weren’t available at the time. Those resources now seem to be coming into focus.

The $24-million Olympics Sports Complex is the latest piece of the puzzle to improve Pirate sports facilities. Since Holland came here nearly seven years ago, a total of $60 million has been committed to that effort, including the addition of 7,000 seats to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium last year and the planned construction of a new practice facility for the basketball and volleyball teams. Holland says the Olympic sports facility and the basketball gym will be paid for with $1.5 million in annual revenue from the new football seats and $15 million in private fundraising. In addition, the $1.7 million in student activity fees that had gone toward Minges Coliseum, since paid for, will be transferred to the new complex.

In the center will be the new home for non-revenue sports. The Olympics Sports Building will feature home and away locker rooms for softball, soccer and track events as well as equipment and training rooms. The second floor will feature a team meeting room and coaches’ offices. The building includes a fully equipped sports medicine facility.

All three playing fields will have restrooms, concession stands and wireless Internet access. The site is being landscaped with dogwood, holly, magnolia, cherry and maple trees. A graceful brick and wrought iron wall extends along Greenville Boulevard.

Softball

In photo: Toni Paisley, pitcher, Jordan Lewis, outfielder/infielder, Kristi Oshiro, infielder

The first of the three Olympic Sports Complex fields to debut, the softball stadium opened Feb. 16. Coach Tracey Kee calls it a “miniature Clark-LeClair Stadium,” complete with lights, three covered batting cages, a state-of-the-art press box and a video scoreboard in right-center field. The stadium has 1,000 seats, of which 200 are chairbacks. The field is 200 feet from home plate to the outfield foul poles. It’s 220 feet to dead center.

Although not expected to draw the same numbers as the Pirate baseball team with its near cult-like following at the 6-year-old 3,000-seat Clark-LeClair Stadium, the softball team “has unbelievable fans who are slowly falling in love with the program,” Kee says.

Incoming freshman Emma Mendoker, who has followed the progress of the new softball stadium during visits to ECU’s campus, says she was speechless when she saw the near-finished field late last year. “When I first went into the stands and looked out onto the field, it’s hard to describe, but it was just how it was presented,” Mendoker said. “I was ready to skip my senior year.”

The site is a reminder of ECU’s continuing commitment to what are called non-revenue sports. That commitment was first made two years ago with the opening of the North Recreational Complex (NRC), a sprawling area 10 minutes from campus with eight multipurpose lighted fields, walking trails and a six-acre lake. The last phase of the NRC, a six-acre lake with a sandy beach and boat rentals, will be completed soon.

Coaches from the three Olympics Sports Complex teams say the facilities will improve recruiting and the overall cache from the school’s commitment to sports of all types. “The whole place is looking different,” says women’s soccer coach Rob Donnenwirth. “It looks big-time. And it’s setting us up for inclusion in other conferences.”

Moving to a Bowl Championship Series conference would benefit the football program because of the opportunity to play in more lucrative postseason bowls. A conference change also would generate more revenue for all ECU sports programs. But it’s not just about building shiny new stadiums or even winning games, although both are important. What Holland has done, according to Donnenwirth, is to instill the mindset that ECU “belongs” in a major conference with other “big-time” schools. “It’s not just the facilities; it’s the culture that he’s changed,” Donnenwirth says.

Track and Field

In photo: Matthew McConaughey, javelin, Curt Kraft, head coach, Tynita Butts, sprinter/jumper, Maegan Lewis, hammer

To save money and conserve space, many university track facilities—including those at N.C. State and Carolina—are simply ovals built around soccer fields. But ECU’s new eight-lane track will surround an area for throwing events—javelin, hammer and discus. A tall gate-like structure rises in the infield to protect spectators and other athletes during throwing events.

The last of the three playing fields to open, the track facility is expected to begin hosting matches next spring. ECU has been unable to hold conference events on campus because the school’s facilities, which were unlighted and did not meet NCAA standards and specifications.

Coach Curt Kraft says ECU will have the “nicest track and field facility in North Carolina.” Looking at the entire Olympic Sports Complex—and its close proximity to the baseball stadium—he adds, “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find four better facilities in one package within the league. It takes us to another level in Conference USA.”

Still, the victories have come. The women’s soccer team posted its best overall record ever in 2008 and went undefeated in conference play. The women’s track team finished sixth at the 2010 C-USA Indoor Championships, its best showing in school history. Kee’s softball team remains the powerhouse it has been for years; it’s the defending C-USA regular season and tournament champions after winning at least 40 games in six of the past seven seasons. Future Pirates are noticing. “ECU finally has a home that matches their level of skill,” says Emma Mendoker, a high school pitcher from Amherst, Mass., who will play for Kee as a freshman this fall. “For me, the most important thing was the level of play, the coaches and the academics. But it’s an added bonus to have such great facilities.”

Another incoming freshman athlete, Kyle Hefkin, who threw the javelin for State College (Pa.) High School’s track team, said the complex influenced his decision. “Part of my decision was based on the new facilities—probably about 30 percent of my decision,” says Hefkin, who starts classes this fall. “I’m pretty excited.”

Curt Kraft, ECU’s director of men’s and women’s track and field teams, says he believes the new facilities definitely will boost community support and improve attendance for the Olympic sports teams.

“I’ve been coaching for 26 years, and in all my days of coaching, I’ve never had the opportunity to coach on a brand-new facility,” Kraft says. “But this is not about me, and it’s not about 2012. This is about the future—2018, 2022. This will be here for generations to come.”