Orlando is known as the Happiest Place on Earth because of its proximity to a certain theme park. But for the East Carolina football team, the central Florida city has become a safe harbor from an approaching storm.
Instead of traveling to Blacksburg, Va., for their scheduled game against Virginia Tech on Saturday, the Pirates boarded buses and headed south.
According to a statement issued by ECU’s athletic department, the decision to ride out Hurricane Florence in Orlando was based on experience gained during previous storms — including Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
The move was made not only for the immediate safety of the players, but to give them a place to prepare for their next game — on Sept. 22 at South Florida — should they be unable to return to Greenville because of flooding and power outages.
“A decision was made to relocate the East Carolina University football team to Orlando by bus early Wednesday morning,” The ECU statement said. “The location was determined based on the track of Hurricane Florence and lodging availability, along with lessons learned from recent past difficulties returning home to an area impacted by widespread flooding. Should this be the case again as forecasted, accessibility and transitional logistics for our next game in Tampa become manageable.”
Eastern North Carolina has experienced two catastrophic flooding events as a result of hurricanes over the past 20 years. On both occasions — with Floyd in 1999 and Matthew in 2016 — ECU had to postpone or more football games.
Despite forecasts warning that Florence’s impact could be among the worst ever in the region and a state of emergency having already been declared, Virginia Tech officials were clearly unhappy with the Pirates’ decision not to play.
Hokies athletic director Whit Babcock issued a statement criticizing ECU, saying that it would have been “more responsible and accurate” to wait until the storm got closer before canceling the game. That was followed by a since-deleted Tweet that suggested playing the game was more important than the safety of the players.
Though both schools have said that efforts to make up the game will be made, it’s doubtful that will happen.
That, however, is the farthest thing from coach Scottie Montgomery’s mind.
“For us, it’s more for the student-athlete and how we can protect them,” Montgomery said. “I’m a lot more equipped to deal with this time because we’ve been in this situation before (in 2016). I understand how important this situation is and how quickly it can change here in Eastern North Carolina.
“These are student-athletes, but beneath all of that they’re kids and they’re human. Their loved ones are what’s most important to them. We’re going to handle it the right way.”