It didn't seem real.
Standing in Radford, Va., last year at the Big South Conference championships, Winthrop coach Cid Carvalho watched each of his teams lose. A program that had dominated Big South men's and women's tennis since 2004 was beaten and deprived of the cherry on top of the championship sundae -- a trip to the NCAA tournament.
"I think it was just ... Radford played very well," Carvalho said recently, as the players of the 2007-08 team filed by dressed for practice. "On the women's side, Coastal just played a super match."
The shocking upsets ended one of the most successful chapters in the Eagles' athletic history. Carvalho's women had claimed five straight Big South titles while the men won three. No one felt very good about the history last year, though ... when one is accustomed to winning, one likes to keep winning.
So this year's teams are focused on beginning a new chapter. They've already begun playing the murderous non-conference schedule Carvalho's lined up for them, meant to challenge every player so they'll be ready for the Big South.
And when the BSC tournament rolls around again, this time at Winthrop's Memorial Courts, Carvalho feels his teams will be ready.
"I'm getting to know them," Carvalho said. "But I'm very pleased with the quality of the practices we've been having. They're all working well together."
Three freshmen joined the team with another, Walter Basten, taking part in the fall sessions but entering his first spring. They join a solid returning core of Vinicius Bortolatto, Alejandro Portugal, Rodrigo Santos and Arthur Takahashi, which held enough weight to make the Eagles preseason picks for second place in the Big South.
Once again, Carvalho has stocked his squad with international flavor, featuring players from Russia (Sergey Belov), Brazil (Bortolatto, Santos, Takahashi), Poland (Marcin Majchrzak) and Peru (Jose Pardo, Portugal). The Americans on the squad are Andrea Merg, a Northwestern High School alum, and Basten, a transfer from Queens who's from Lynchburg, Va.
Recruiting foreign-born players becomes a necessity at a mid-major, since many of the high school stars growing up in the Southeast usually attend big-name schools. It's a process Carvalho has mastered over his 23 years at Winthrop, traveling abroad to fill his roster.
"It's the only way to compete," he said. "To get the best from around the world."
It works to the Eagles' advantage because Carvalho can sometimes get former pro players, such as Bortolatto, who played two years of pro ball before coming to Winthrop. A 25-year-old junior, Bortolatto missed the Eagles' early spring matches with a broken wrist but is back to playing shape.
"We're still getting more experience," Bortolatto said. "By the end of the season, we should be playing more as a team."
The youth is a slight concern, but Carvalho and Bortolatto don't see it as a major problem. Bortolatto said he and the other upperclassmen are instructing the younger guys on the team how to handle the pressure.
"They come out here, see the people watching, and they can't play the way they play," Bortolatto said. "But that's a good thing to have. They'll be playing much better at the end of the year."
"It's the level we want," Carvalho said. "Tennis is such an international sport. We find players who can get into school with the SATs, transcripts, Clearinghouse, then once they get that out of the way, they're used to overcoming obstacles."
With only seven players, the Eagles could be called short-handed.
Yet they were still picked in the preseason to win the Big South.
"I like the way they fight," Carvalho said. "I think we have a group of girls that once they get on the court, they really mean business."
NCAA scholarship restrictions mean only eight full scholarships are available but Carvalho could only field seven players when an eighth recruit fell through. Nevertheless, it's a talented group, one whose returning players are still smarting from the tournament loss to Coastal.
"I was shocked," said Patricia Coimbra. "We beat Coastal 7-0 in the regular season. They beat us 4-3 in the tournament.
"But we all learned a lesson, not to underestimate anybody."
Coimbra and Larisa Bekmetova lead the returnees and are helped by Yelena Fadina and Paula Pereira. Like the men, it's a young group, with three freshmen -- Sara Abutovic, Lisa Wilkinson and Elizaveta Zaytseva -- and two sophomores among the seven players.
Also like the men, they're playing a tough non-conference slate. The team began 0-4, a record Carvalho labeled "deceptive," because of the strength of the opponents.
And if he didn't think it was doing any good, Carvalho wouldn't have lined up the brutal stretch.