Joe Hudak knew it would be rough. The whole team did.
But that's still no excuse.
"If our record was reversed, if we were 34-26, that's probably about where, realistically, I thought we'd be," Winthrop's 17th-year skipper said earlier this week, recalling the 26-34 2008 campaign that ended on May 23. "You always look for excuses ... with us, we lost our one and two pitchers, we lost arguably our best hitter, we played a tough schedule.
"We still should have done better. That's still no excuse. This was just such a frustrating year."
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A year where Hudak notched two personal milestones -- his 800th career win and his 600th with the Eagles -- quietly ended in the Big South Conference tournament. The final loss, a 15-3 thrashing from Liberty, summed up the season.
After two gritty wins to set up a showdown with eventual champion Coastal Carolina, Winthrop lost an emotional 8-6 decision to the Chanticleers. That forced the Eagles to turn around and play the Flames 30 minutes after in order to save their season.
Liberty posted an eight-run second inning and everyone knew it was over. Winthrop's streak of not making the NCAA tournament only reached two years, but when the two before that were glorious 40-win seasons, it was a little more salt in the wound.
It was apparent this year's squad was going to become the losingest team in school history, but had the Eagles won the tournament title and been playing in an NCAA Regional this week, nobody would have minded that tag. An NCAA year for a school of Winthrop's size could never be labeled a bad season, no matter the number of losses.
But once that eight-spot hit the board, 32 players and four coaches knew they were headed for a long offseason of wondering.
Where did it go wrong? Why couldn't we find a solution?
"If I knew the answer, I would have done something about it," Hudak said. "It became apparent to us early that we were out of the running for an at-large bid. I don't know if that affected us.
"It's one of those extremely frustrating things where I can't put my finger on one exact reason."
Hudak pointed out several things he was disappointed in. The team's startling lack of playing fundamental baseball was evident early and never truly got resolved. The pitching staff, after losing aces Alex Wilson and Jason Franzblau, was on a season-long rollercoaster. The offense began slowly and once the team decided to change tactics, playing more small ball instead of relying on the big inning, it improved, but never to the point Hudak thought it could be.
But there's not one overlying reason why the Eagles didn't get it done. Hudak could have blamed the youth of the team (21 freshmen or sophomores) or the slate (a 5-16 combined record against the eight NCAA Regional teams they played).
Instead, he took the high road. He didn't expect a 40-win season, but he sure didn't expect this.
"The responsibility has to fall on my shoulders," he said. "We'll meet next week as a staff and evaluate, look at every phase of the game. This type of year is not acceptable."
"We know we're a better club than that," first baseman Eddie Tisdale said. "We have high expectations here. This is a program that has a lot of history behind it. The expectations are high every year."
Yes, and for the second straight year, inconsistency dogged Winthrop all season. The brutal schedule led to a 3-14 start, lowlighted by a nine-game losing streak. The best stretches -- a good series at Coastal, followed by a win at Georgia -- were always followed by really bad weekends.
A walloping at Charleston Southern in mid-April pretty much forced the Eagles into having to win the BSC tournament to get anywhere. A series win over second-place Liberty was followed with two losses to cellar-dweller Radford.
Struggling for an explanation, pitcher Ryan Mullins said it seemed like Winthrop always played to its competition. Against Georgia and North Carolina, that was fine.
But that high level never followed against The Citadel, College of Charleston, Wake Forest ... the list goes on.
With another aggressive lineup in 2009 -- Hudak's already booked three-game series with Arizona State and Southern Cal, plus games against Wake, UNC and Georgia -- the shadow of 2008 looms. Could it happen again?
"It's not like we're not used to that, the schedule, I mean," said senior Ryan Schwartz. "We've always scheduled big. We just had to show up against the smaller guys like we did against the bigs."
Despite the season, Hudak was extremely optimistic about 2009. Winthrop only loses one position starter (Billy Froehlich) and although two weekend pitchers (Schwartz, Mullins) are gone, the arms that are still around or some of the recruits may fill those gaps.
And unlike last year, where several players left, only one (Mike Ritson) has asked to transfer this year. Hudak spoke numerous times of the camaraderie in the clubhouse and it's that feeling that caused him to smile.
"This was the worst year we've had since I've been here, but not in the quality of kids I was coaching," he said. "Not one of them ever made an excuse or questioned. I really enjoyed dealing with this group of guys."
The chemistry and returning talent has got everyone excited.
"We know we got a good ballclub, we know we got good players," freshman Robert Lake said. "It's just a matter of time before it all comes together."
The Major League Baseball draft should leave Winthrop's underclassmen untouched. Most of the players are already off playing summer ball, and the only injury was to freshman Bennett Jordan, who knew since the fall that he'd have to have surgery on a torn-up shoulder.
But the rest, even as they gathered around the six seniors at the BSC tournament, seemed to already have the year behind them.
"We tried to find a run all season," said third baseman Bryn Henderson. "We got it a few times, like (at the tournament). We just never found that winning streak."
Hudak will discuss the season with his assistants, recruit and take some vacation time this summer. The staff may get some queries for job openings but Hudak is hopeful his three coaches remain.
Sitting in his office overlooking The Winthrop Ballpark, Hudak seemed the same man who realized he was heading into 2008 without much of the talent from 2007. He never wondered "What if ... " or moaned about the season that's past.
Can't do anything about it now, his expression said. Just got to make the next one better.
"Last year was a horrible year and as you mentioned, we were the losingest team in school history," he said. "But these guys aren't losers. They did everything they could and just didn't get it done.
"That still doesn't make it acceptable. But I'm excited, we're all excited about the future. It's always our goal to get to an NCAA Regional and be a top-30 or 40 team, and I know we can do that."