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New head coach Mike Houston and his East Carolina football staff entered National Signing Day with three specific targets in mind.
At the end of the day on Feb. 6, all three had signed on the dotted line to become Pirates.
Highly-touted junior college tight end Zech Byrd and defensive linemen Immanuel Hickman and Rick D’Abreu all made their intentions known when they signed with ECU last week, rounding out a signing class that now includes 21 individuals after 18 had signed during the early period in December.
“It was the three we wanted,” said Houston, who was introduced as the Pirates’ 22nd head coach Dec. 4, 2018. “We finished up in December and as this process started, we looked at what we wanted to do with the remaining three spots. We decided what we wanted and then we decided who we wanted, and I think anytime you can get the ones that you go after and you get your No. 1 target, that’s really positive.
“Excited to have these guys added to the previous 18 and I think top to bottom it’s a very solid class.”
The most important addition may have been Byrd. The Garden City (Kansas) Community College product signed with ECU over an offer from Utah. He also had tenders from Auburn and Louisville at the junior college level as a three-star prospect.
Coming out of high school in Alabama, he was a four-star player by some recruiting services and was once committed to Florida. Byrd had to attend Garden City to get his academics in order, but now he gets a second chance at ECU, and he will have the chance to play right away. He has three years of eligibility remaining.
“His addition was critical,” Houston said. “He was the No. 1 target when we started looking at who was available out there in the grad transfer and junior college market. Six-foot-6 and a half, 260 pounds, you can’t coach that. Tremendous wingspan, good hands, great athlete. He’s a guy that will be an immediate impact in a lot of different areas.”
The Pirates also bolstered their defensive line with the additions of two notable players. D’Abreu was formerly a James Madison commitment with a handful of FBS offers who opted to make the transition with Houston to ECU. The 6-2, 240-pounder attends Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Virginia.
Hickman, listed at 6-3, 260, was once committed to Cincinnati but backed off that pledge in December. The Chesterfield (Virginia) Mataoca High School product then opened up his recruitment before choosing the Pirates over UCF, Tulane, Georgia Tech and others. It was a staff recruiting effort to land both Hickman and D’Abreu, who grew up just 15 minutes apart.
“It was great to get them,” said linebackers coach Byron Thweatt, who attended Mataoca High School himself. “I’ve had a relationship with those guys for a long time, especially Immanuel being from the same area. Those are tremendous young talents, they’re going to bring a lot of passion and energy to this recruiting class and to this team. I think they’re going to help us out early, hopefully.”
OPENING WEEKEND ARRIVES
All the preseason expectations, talk and buzz surrounding this year’s ECU baseball team can be put in the rear-view mirror beginning this weekend.
The Pirates, who are coming off a 44-win season and are ranked as high as No. 11 nationally this preseason, open their season on Friday inside Clark-LeClair Stadium against the Radford Highlanders.
ECU hosted a regional last season and returns several key contributors, including middle-of-the-order hitters Bryant Packard and Spencer Brickhouse. Snow Hill native and fifth-year head coach Cliff Godwin has turned an always-strong ECU baseball program into a national contender the last few seasons. This year appears no different.
“This is a very high caliber team and program,” said Packard, who hit .406 as a sophomore last season. “ECU has a chance to win a national championship every year with the recruiting classes we bring in, the people we bring in and this university, I feel like it’s built around baseball, and everyone thinks it’s our time.”
After three consecutive weekends of scrimmaging each other, ECU players are ready to face an opponent in a different-colored uniform for once.
“It’s going to be electric,” junior pitcher Jake Agnos said. “We’ve been looking forward to it and waiting for this moment all fall and this is what it’s all about. It’s going to be typical Pirate baseball in Greenville, North Carolina. I know the fans are excited, we’re pumped up and it’s going to be a good weekend.”
STARTING ROTATION SET
With a handful of experienced arms vying for three spots in the weekend rotation, the competition on the mound was at an all-time high over the last few weeks.
Sophomore Alec Burleson was given the nod to throw the first pitch in the series opener as the Friday night guy by Godwin, while Agnos was tabbed as the game 2 starter and junior Tyler Smith for game 3.
Junior Trey Benton, who spent much of last season in the starting rotation, will begin this year in the bullpen. Burleson was the most consistent start down the stretch last season for the Pirates as a freshman, compiling a 5-2 record with a 3.33 ERA.
“It’s awesome to get this opportunity,” Burleson said. “After last year, Coach G said he wanted me to be the Friday night guy and that was my goal coming into the offseason. I had to do everything I needed to do to be the best pitcher I could be and be the best version of myself. It’s a huge honor Coach G trusts me to put me in there on Friday night.”