BIRMINGHAM — The bulk of East Carolina’s football roster experienced what it’s like to become bowl eligible, prepare for postseason and travel to a bowl site following the 2021 season.

What they didn’t experience, however, was playing in a bowl game. The Pirates lost that opportunity when Boston College could not play in the 2021 Military Bowl because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the team. The decision wasn’t made until the day before the teams were supposed to kick off at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.

On Thursday, the Pirates get another shot. And this time, the ball will be kicked off in the Birmingham Bowl at Protective Stadium at 5:45 p.m. with East Carolina on one sideline and Coastal Carolina on the other.

“The biggest thing I’ve talked to them about is this is the first time East Carolina has played a bowl since 2014,” said head coach Mike Houston during Monday’s Birmingham Bowl press conference. “Literally, we were sitting at this point last year when the Military Bowl got canceled. We were on this day. That’s the big thing is getting able to play a bowl game. They have not won a bowl game since 2013, so having a chance to win a bowl game for East Carolina is big. East Carolina University has nine bowl wins in the history of the program. That’s great, but that’s not a ton. It’s not like we’ve won 30 bowls. To get a 10th bowl win that’s significant. That’s been, really, the thing we’ve focused on.”

At the forefront of the opportunity is a senior class that helped lead the turnaround of a program that had six consecutive losing seasons before last year’s team finished 7-5.

“This team knows it’s a blessing to be playing this time of year,” said quarterback Holton Ahlers. “A lot of people ask, was it tough being in a hotel for Christmas. I told them it was a blessing being with the guys. When we first got here, postseason play wasn’t even an option. We had to totally flip the program when Coach Houston came in. This class bought into it and got the classes after to buy in. To be right here and have a chance to play for a ring and win a bowl game would be huge for this program, huge for this class. Just proud to be here, but the job is not done.”

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Ahlers is a jumbo-size quarterback who has put up quality numbers. The hometown product has accounted for 15,063 yards and 117 touchdowns in five seasons as the program’s starter. He has accounted for touchdowns passing, rushing and receiving during his career and has started 54 games.  

“Man, he seems like he’s been there 20 years,” said Coastal Carolina interim head coach and defensive coordinator Chad Staggs. “He can do it all. What I’ve seen is he gets them in all the right plays. He makes the right checks.”

Ahlers makes sure that speedy running back Keaton Mitchell gets the football. The 5-foot-9, 184-pound Mitchell rushed for 1,325 yards with 13 touchdowns this season. He was an honorable mention All-American. Last season, he rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns.

Wide receivers Isaiah Winstead (82 catches for 1,013 yards with four touchdowns) and C.J. Johnson (60 catches for 993 yards with nine touchdowns) are outstanding.

It will take a team effort for the Pirates to finish with a win and send the seniors out with a bowl championship ring.

“There’s a sense of pride,” linebacker Myles Berry said of being a part of the class that helped turn things around. “We started from the bottom. ECU was at the bottom. Now, we see the change. Coach Houston, when he came in, we had to buy into the program, buy into the system. To see where it’s come from, playing in a bowl game, it’s a blessing. I definitely want to end on a good note.”

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