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East Carolina's Jungle Rocks The Greenville Regional

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GREENVILLE, N.C.—Brian Dilday teaches elementary school P.E., volunteers as a youth pastor and runs summer camps for kids—merging his dual passions for athletics and for helping children in his hometown of Greenville, N.C.

But right now, at 7 p.m. on a Friday, Dilday is pressing an oversized megaphone to his lips and trash-talking 18- to 22-year-olds.

Dilday is off the clock and in his natural habitat, and he’s got a reputation to uphold as one of The Jungle’s fiercist lions.

Dilday, 45, has been tailgating and heckling from East Carolina’s left-field parking lot long before ECU’s Clark-LeClair Stadium was built in 2004 and the towering white pines that once surrounded the old Harrington Field were cut down due to disease. Back then, left field really was a jungle, with boisterous fans perching themselves on the flatbeds of pickup trucks, cinder blocks and milk cartons just to see through the thick outfield brush.

Dilday estimates he’s been to at least 1,000 ECU baseball games, and probably more. He still has scars from the stitches in the back of his head from when he slipped on Harrington Field’s metal bleachers as a 6-year-old. He earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ECU and married a woman in 2000 who is just as passionate about ECU baseball as he is, if not more so. The old Harrington Field wasn’t equipped to host NCAA regionals, but that never mattered to Dilday and his wife, Koryn. They’d go with the Pirates anywhere.

In 2000, Brian and Koryn stuffed fake trees inside their shirts and snuck them into ECU’s regional at Fleming Stadium in nearby Wilson, N.C. They carefully waddled their way as far down the first-base foul line as they could go, planted their plastic trees along the stadium side railing and declared: “This is the Jungle!” In 2002, Brian and Koryn sat through 110-degree heat at the Clemson Regional to cheer on their Pirates—while Koryn was seven-months pregnant.

Now with four kids, their enthusiasm hasn’t waned. Not even in the slightest.

Last year, on a Tuesday night game against Liberty on March 28, Dilday caught a Dwanya Williams-Sutton home run ball in The Jungle beyond the left-field wall—with his megaphone. The next morning, his kids ran down from their bedrooms, yelling, “Dad, you’re on SportsCenter!”

It’s one of his proudest moments as an ECU fan.

“I was here cheering on the Pirates when (head coach) Cliff Godwin played for them,” Dilday says Friday, as he prepares for the start of ECU’s second-ever home regional at 14-year-old Clark-LeClair Stadium. “Cliff, he’s an awesome coach, and he’s got high expectations for us, and we know he’s gonna get us to Omaha. Do we want it to be this year? Of course we do.

“I’ve already told my son, if they go to Omaha, we’re going. If we have to pitch a tent, we’ll be there. It’s one of those lifetime experiences, and we want to do it while the Pirates are there.”

Within most fanbases, Dilday would probably be labeled as “extreme,” or as some sort of “super fan.” But not at ECU. Not in The Jungle. And especially not today.

Pirates fans have waited nine long years between hosting bids at Clark-LeClair—a stadium built with hosting in mind. And with the No. 1 seed Pirates set to take on No. 4 seed UNC Wilmington within minutes, the parking lot in left field is abuzz with ECU fans of all age groups and walks of life, the air clouded by barbecue grill smoke and the savory smell of sizzling pork. Every seat in the stadium is occupied—sold out long before the weekend began.

But out here, in left field, is where the real action is. It’s unique, and one of the more underrated fan experiences in all of college baseball.

Tony Brown and his friend Charlie Martin started the Jungle tradition in the late 1970s (they no longer remember the exact date or even year). Simply too hot in the bleachers, Brown and Martin sought refuge in the tall, shady trees beyond left field. Before long, more people started joining them. And even more came when Brown and Martin started grilling, arriving two and a half hours before games to cook entire meals.

“We came out here, and it went from two (people) to four to eight to 20 to 100 to 1,000, and we just kept cooking,” Brown says from his huge white tent in the parking lot. He’s colloquially known as the Mayor of the Jungle. He’s been to almost every game since the late '70s.

“I’ve missed some, but I try to get to every game. You can ask my wife. She thinks I’m crazy.”

With first pitch mere minutes away, fans start crossing the chain-linked fence that separates the parking lot from the outfield’s grassy berm, and together they stand against the outfield wall. This is when the fun truly begins, when fans like Dilday pick up their megaphones and taunt the opposing left fielders—all clean heckles, all family friendly. Often those left fielders will talk right back to them. If the opponents are friendly enough, Jungle fans are known to pass them hot dogs during games. If not, then get ready for some abuse. Nothing is off limits. Jungle fans look up left fielders’ bios, their social media accounts, their girlfriends.

“We know our batters better than them, so we’ll be like, ‘Hey, he’s a pull guy, take a couple steps to the right,” said a laughing Jared Plummer, an ECU grad from 2004 and a long-time Jungle attendee. He runs the unofficial @ECUJungle Twitter account.

As the ECU players run onto the field, these Jungle fans spring into action, slamming on the left-field wall with their hands in rhythmic unison, yelling louder and louder as Pirates left fielder Bryant Packard sprints toward them. Faster and faster. Closer and closer.

Suddenly, Packard vaults over the wall—a Jungle Jump, a LeClair Leap—into a purple-and-gold embrace.

Game time.

In The Blood

An alum of nearby D.H. Conley High School, Packard was an eighth grader the last time ECU hosted a regional. He was at the ballpark that weekend.

So was, seemingly, the rest of Greenville.

After years and years of having to host regionals in nearby towns of Wilson, Kinston and the less-nearby Baton Rouge, La., Greenville finally had a regional to call its own in 2009. This was the vision the late Keith LeClair had, the legendary ECU head coach who died of ALS in 2006. The ballpark that bears his name was built to host—built as a launching pad toward Omaha.

In 2009, The Jungle’s unbridled passion was on full display for the rest of the country.

“In this area, baseball is the king of everything; people just go nuts about baseball out here. There’s just something deeper in the blood,” said Charlie Martin, son of one of the original Jungle founders and a Jungle tailgater for the last 37 years. “(Hosting) is something that everybody pines for every year. Obviously, everybody wants to know if the team is good enough to get to Omaha. But the thing that dominates the conversation from the very first series of the year is, ‘Are we in a position to host?’”

As fans gathered to drink, grill and reminisce in the left-field parking lot this weekend, talk of that 2009 regional was inescapable. It remains one of the greatest moments in ECU baseball history, as the Pirates rallied back to defeat Jackie Bradley Jr.’s South Carolina Gamecocks and advance to a super regional in Chapel Hill.

The fans practically willed ECU to win that final game.

“I just remember when I was on the mound and we were starting our comeback I had such an adrenaline rush I felt almost like I was having an out-of-body experience,” said Seth Simmons, now a pitcher in the Padres organization. “Every out, the place would go nuts. Every time I got two strikes on someone they were on their feet yelling and whatnot. It was intense

“I was out of gas by the third inning (I threw), but that atmosphere definitely kept me going, and I really didn’t have a care in the world about how tired I was. I still get chills to this day talking about it.”

The hero of that game remains a mythic figure in Greenville lore.

Right fielder Devin Harris hit a three-run, game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning that is still flying through the Eastern Carolina sky. An inning later, Harris drilled a single up the middle that sent designated hitter Kyle Roller barrelling home. The stadium erupted in deafening disbelief as the Pirates mobbed Roller and Harris at home plate.

Then, suddenly, the entire team changed direction and sprinted, full-speed, toward the left-field wall, each player leaping one by one into The Jungle.

“That’s probably one of the best memories I’ve got as far as my baseball career is concerned,” Harris said. “I don’t know if I’ve played in front of fans more invested. Obviously, being an outfielder, those guys take care of you. That’s the kind of atmosphere players thrive under.

“It took a little time (for the moment to sink in). I don’t think I quite appreciated it as much while the moment was going on. All you really think about is the game. But afterward, I understood the depth and how much that meant for the territory and the area. It meant a lot to a lot of people.

“I’m super pumped for the guys this year. It’s a special time to be able to host a regional. There’s not gonna be a better crowd. They should embrace it, and I’m sure they will. It’s not something that comes around too often. This could be one of the best moments of their baseball careers.”

This year’s Pirates unquestionably embraced the atmosphere this year—just as electrifying as it was nine years ago. Packard said his Jungle Jump before Friday night’s 16-7 win over UNC Wilmington was something he’ll tell his kids about 30 years from now.

The Pirates made sure to engage The Jungle early in that contest, as third baseman Connor Litton hit a two-run opposite-field home run in the first inning that sent Clark-LeClair Stadium plunging into chaos. Every fan in The Jungle threw up his or hands, yelling “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!,” as a small—kid-friendly—cannon fired out a loud pop.

“To play in front of that type of atmosphere, I don’t know how you can’t get ready to play,” Litton said afterward. “It just fires you up. As soon as I ran on the field to play defense, I had cold chills, my hair stood up. Well, not really cold chills. Goosebumps. I don’t know how you couldn’t get ready for something like that.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t get those opportunities very much where you can fire up the crowd like I did, and that’s something where the other team is looking at 5,000 or 6,000 fans cheering—they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh crap.’”

From there, the Pirates pulled away, and The Jungle fans got progressively rowdier, taunting UNCW left fielder Jackson Meadows throughout the contest. But unlike some fanbases, these Jungle natives know when to show respect to their opponents, too.

The next day, after the Seahawks rallied to defeat Ohio State in a 13-inning elimination game, those fans slammed on the left-field wall and kept chanting Jackson Meadows’ name until he did a Jungle Jump of his own.

What stands out most about The Jungle is its sense of community. What might seem intimidating from afar is welcoming up close. Most of these fans were born and raised in the Greenville area; they watched the Pirates players in high school, in Little League.

“That’s definitely a fun aspect of it,” said Charlie Yorgen, who played his senior season at ECU last year and came back to tailgate in left field this weekend with several former teammates.

“I got to catch up with a bunch of fans who watched me,” Yorgen said, while holding a beer under a purple tent in left field. “They know who I am. I know who they are, I know their family, I know everything about them. It’s not just watching someone play. It’s exhilarating knowing you’re playing in front of people who care about you. It’s more than just a game here. That’s what makes this place so special.

“I’ve gone from Jungle Jumps to drinking beers in The Jungle.”

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Several Jungle natives went to high school with Coach Godwin, went to ECU with him and cheered him on when he played for Coach LeClair from 1998-2001. They love that he wears the No. 23 in LeClair’s honor, and that he’s committed to retiring that number once he takes the Pirates to Omaha for the first time.

“Keith had that dream,” Dilday said. “We’ve always had high expectations of going far, but the ECU baseball program has been very, very good for a number of years. And LeClair, he just stepped it up to another level. And with Cliff being one of those players, he gets, he heard it, he learned it, and now he preaches it, he teaches it, and he loves it.

“With his passion, I have no doubt he’s gonna get us there.”

It won’t be this year.

Still Waiting For Omaha

Despite a promising start to the Greenville Regional, the Pirates fell to South Carolina, 4-2, on Saturday night—unable to down the Gamecocks like they did nine years ago. And after weathering a 5 hour, 8-minute rain delay, the Pirates lost in an elimination game rematch against UNCW, 9-7, on Sunday night.

With red eyes, Godwin lamented the team’s elimination after the game, but he was effusive in his praise for the Pirates fans who waited out hours of delays and for an ECU team that won 44 games and the American Athletic Conference Tournament title. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see these Pirates produce a similar season next year, as their run this season was fueled by a talented sophomore class that will be another year wiser.

This year's results aside, the pride the Greenville community has for its Pirates is undeniable.

“Our culture is the No. 1 thing in our program, and it means the most to me,” said Godwin, in his fourth year at the helm at ECU. “The kids do things the right way. They’re not perfect, but they do well in school, they play hard, they compete, they’re good citizens in our community. They make East Carolina proud. And I know it hurts for the fans, because the fans were waiting for just something to be successful at East Carolina the past couple of year. But our kids gave it everything they had. They just didn’t play well enough to win when it mattered.

“I’m happy for Greenville, though, that East Carolina had the opportunity to host a regional because I thought it was an electric atmosphere, and it’ll help us moving forward in our program.”

And however far these Pirates go, and wherever baseball takes them, they know they’ll have a jungle of support behind them.

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