If Winthrop's baseball team returns to the NCAA tournament in 2008, there won't be any question as to whether or not the Eagles earned it.
The Eagles' 2008 schedule was released last week and features another stocked slate, perhaps the most challenging the team has ever faced. Only five of the 22 opponents had losing records this year, and Winthrop will play four games at Rice, a good pick for the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
"I believe that, top to bottom, this is the most difficult schedule we have played in my 17 years here at Winthrop," Eagles coach Joe Hudak said in a statement. "The schedule will a great challenge for our young club, particularly our young pitching staff."
Winthrop missed the NCAAs last year for the first time in three seasons, finishing 33-27 and second in the Big South Conference. After losing several players to graduation or to transfers, Hudak reloaded with a group oozing with potential.
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The talent was displayed in intrasquad scrimmages during fall practice but will get thrown into the fire right away once the season begins. New rules in college baseball pushed the start date of the season to late February, but the Eagles will begin the season with 12 straight home games.
Winthrop starts Feb. 22 against Evansville in the Johnny Gill Memorial tournament. Defending Big East regular-season champion St. John's will play the first of three games against Winthrop the next day with Gardner-Webb rounding out the first weekend.
The annual Coca-Cola Classic will again be hosted by the Eagles from Feb. 28 to March 2. The opening game of the tournament features Winthrop facing North Carolina. The Tar Heels finished second at the College World Series in each of the past two years.
St. John's and Winthrop tangle again on the second day before the Eagles play Kent State and an opponent to be determined in the consolation/championship game.
Wake Forest pops up March 4 before Southern Cal comes to Rock Hill for a three-game series. The Trojans finished 27-29 last year but are one of the nation's most historically successful programs.
The four-game trip to Rice is March 14-17, the second straight year Winthrop has traveled to Texas for a game or two. The Eagles played in a tournament at Baylor last year and also took on Texas, falling in each game.
College of Charleston, The Citadel, Wake Forest, Elon, Georgia and Charlotte join Wagner and Lipscomb as the rest of Winthrop's non-conference opponents, plus a return trip to North Carolina on May 13. The Eagles begin conference play March 28-30 at VMI and expect to have another tough schedule against the Big South.
"There is no doubt the Big South Conference is getting stronger and stronger," Hudak said.
The Eagles take on rival Coastal Carolina early this year, playing the Chanticleers in Conway April 4-6. The two teams met on the final week of the regular season last year with the Big South title on the line before Winthrop fell two games to one.
Winthrop finishes the regular season with a three-game jaunt to UNC Asheville May 16-18 before the Big South tournament. The Eagles will then travel to Danville, Va., for the tournament, hosted this year by Liberty.
• BANGED-UP: Winthrop freshman outfielder Bennett Jordan of York is rehabbing his injured right (throwing) shoulder and hopes to be ready for the season. Jordan crashed into the outfield wall chasing a fly ball during fall practice and suffered a slight tear in his labrum.
"What we're planning on doing is to wait and see if he can play in the spring," Hudak said. "He can't do any more damage to it so there's a possibility he can play."
Hudak confirmed Jordan will have to have surgery eventually, but after the rookie talked it over with his family and the medical staff, he decided to begin slight rehabilitation work and hope for the best. According to Hudak, once preseason practice begins in January, Jordan will try to play the season, and if the pain becomes too much, he can decide then if he wants to have the surgery immediately.
Should Jordan have to go under the knife, he would still have four years of eligibility remaining. As one of a trio of local high school stars who signed with Winthrop last year, Jordan impressed early with his hitting and was bidding for a spot in the Eagles' outfield.