East Carolina adjusts to uncomfortable role in Virginia Tech's comeback story
GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Skip Holtz's biggest fear about East Carolina's season opener at Virginia Tech has nothing to do with the Hokies' tough defense or tenacious special teams.
"I'm scared to death we're going to run out of the tunnel, and I'm going to have 80 guys with cameras strapped around their necks ready to take pictures of everything," the East Carolina coach said Monday.
Holtz knows what awaits at Lane Stadium this weekend when his Pirates play ninth-ranked Virginia Tech. It will be the Hokies' first game since the campus rampage that left 33 dead and a community traumatized.
East Carolina is struggling to come to terms with its uncomfortable role in Virginia Tech's comeback story. After all, if Virginia Tech has become "America's Team," where does that leave East Carolina?
"We are walking into an absolute hornets' nest," Holtz said. "We are trying to do everything we can to get our players ready. ... Once you start to win, you've got to learn how to handle winning (and) part of that is being able to block out a lot of the distractions that don't have anything to do with the game of football."
As the tragedy unfolded April 16, many Pirates players watched news reports in the locker room. They understood they would be Virginia Tech's first opponent next season.
Holtz spent the summer preparing his team for what was in store. While his coaching staff couldn't replicate the noise created by Lane Stadium's 66,233 screaming inhabitants, they could sharpen the players' focus.
"I'm glad that we can be part of those ceremonies, but we still have to understand that we're going up there to play a football game, and that's what we have to get prepared to get ready to do," Holtz said. "We've tried to educate them up until this point with all types of distractions that they'll have, and the challenge that we have to learn to balance all those things along with keeping our focus on what we have to do."
This wasn't the kind of attention the schools were counting a few years ago when they signed an agreement to resume their dormant series by playing nine times from 2007-15. The massacre left the Virginia Tech campus in search of catharsis, and nearly everyone in the southern Virginia community spent the summer pointing toward this game as the next step in helping the Hokies heal.
"When you go through a tragedy like that, right afterwards I thought Tech people wanted to be with Tech people to hug and comfort each other," Hokies coach Frank Beamer has said. "I do think our people are looking forward to that time to be together."
Even before the shootings, this was always going to be a formidable test for East Carolina.
The Pirates are taking on a top 10 team in one of the nation's toughest stadiums. What's more, East Carolina will be breaking in a new quarterback, a new top receiver and even a new punter. That's all the more troubling given the Hokies' history of playing "Beamer Ball" on special teams while blocking kicks with regularity.
The new quarterback likely will be either Rob Kass or Brett Clay. Kass, however, was charged with driving while impaired after he was pulled over during a DWI checkpoint, police said Monday. It was unclear whether Kass will play.
"If you were going to write a script, you don't want to baptize a quarterback there," Holtz said. "It's not where you want to break in a new punter as well."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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