GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -Skip Holtz could feel that something was off last season. Sure, his East Carolina team was working hard to prepare for its first bowl game in five years. But Holtz also could sense a different vibe beneath every practice and team function.
It was the feeling that, after years of struggle, just being there was somehow enough.
The third-year coach is hoping for much more the second time around.
``They were so excited about to be at a bowl game that they didn't have that burning drive to say it's not about the bowl, it's about the game,'' Holtz said Friday as the Pirates prepare to face Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. ``I think this year's football team understands that now having been there. It's so hard to turn and act like you've been there when you never have been.''
The Pirates (7-5) have earned their 14th bowl bid in program history and are headed to the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since going to three straight bowls from 1999-2001. It's part of the slow and steady rebuilding effort Holtz began when arriving in 2004 to restore a broken-down program.
Inheriting a team that had lost 22 of 25 games - with many by lopsided margins - Holtz guided his first team to five confidence-restoring wins. Last year, the Pirates inched forward to six victories and nearly won their division in Conference USA before losing to South Florida 24-7 in the bowl.
The goal this year was to win a championship - division, conference, bowl, anything. The Pirates have taken more small steps forward; their seven wins are the most by the program since 2000 while their six league victories are the most in any conference in 24 years. But they missed out again on reaching the league title game and are down to their last chance to make good on their championship goal.
``We felt like we had opportunities to win a state championship, a division and conference championship, but unfortunately we let those slip away,'' quarterback Rob Kass said. ``But we feel like the biggest one and most important one is the bowl championship. We're excited to go, but more than anything we want to win, because it's going to be a long plane ride (home) if we don't.''
Holtz doesn't blame last year's group for getting a little starry-eyed at playing in its first bowl game. He also figures that experience will help this year's Pirates accomplish more on what he equates to a holiday business trip - though in a tropical destination.
``As long as we handle this the right way, I think it can be a phenomenal trip,'' Holtz said. ``Anytime you go to a bowl game, it always makes the game more rewarding at the end of the trip when you get to get on that plane with a 'W' to come home. It always makes every event just a little more fun. You remember all the laughs and the positive things that happened during the week. When you lose, you have a tendency to come home with a sour taste in your mouth.''
That much is clear to his players. Holtz said they've been talking about last year's loss as motivation even though the coaches haven't mentioned it to them. And his plan is to take them directly to Aloha Stadium when they arrive to do some light running and get acclimated to the environment.
He figures they'll be more than ready to get started.
``This football team is really trying to grow the program and take another step,'' he said. ``We understand that it's not enough just to go to a bowl game now.''

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