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Great word, "potential." Means a lot of great things could happen.

But none of it's there yet. Hoping to get it there, guiding and coaxing the best performances to reach the highest possible mark, is the challenge.

Looking at what Winthrop lost, it's going to be a challenge for the Eagles to erase the disappointment of 2007 and return to the NCAA tournament, a feat accomplished in 2005 and 2006. Simple facts tell everyone Winthrop is heading into 2008 without the two starting pitchers that ate up the majority of innings last year. They also tell everyone the Eagles' pitching staff is made up of 17 arms, 10 who have yet to throw their first pitch at Winthrop and three more who logged 15 appearances between them last year.

No one ever said keeping a program at the top was supposed to be easy.

"There's a lot of people out there, for whatever reason, they don't think we're going to be very good," coach Joe Hudak said, referring to the Big South Conference preseason predictions that labeled Winthrop fourth. "That's OK with us.

"We're excited about proving them wrong."

The Eagles begin the season this weekend by hosting the Johnny Gill Memorial at The Winthrop Ballpark, unveiling their renovated digs to the public. Although the season-opener is still three days away, the question mark surrounding the team first popped up after last season.

Winthrop finished a 33-27 season by losing both ends of a doubleheader in the Big South tournament. Shortly after, Hudak discovered ace pitcher Alex Wilson needed Tommy John surgery and would be lost for 2008.

The No. 2 starter, Jason Franzblau, was dismissed from the team and Brett Moore, who had started five games, followed Franzblau. Seniors Kellen Taylor, Mike Honce and Jonathan Settle were already gone and redshirted freshman Chris Pepe, who didn't throw at all last year, decided to transfer closer to his Pennsylvania home.

Then when fall practice began, Wilson also decided to transfer, even though it was unlikely he was going to pitch anywhere this year. Nevertheless, Wilson's contributions in 2009 and perhaps 2010 were negated.

"When you lose your one and two, guys that were proven starters and guys you could count on every single game, obviously it's cause for everybody on the staff to set up," Hudak said during the summer. "Going to be interesting to see who rises to the challenge."

With the season upon him, Hudak's statements haven't changed. The roles are still wide open, although obviously some guys have been plugged into the starting rotation for this weekend. The 17 on the staff are pretty much all on equal ground.

Oozing potential, with very little proven.

"I guess just last year in the meeting, he kind of left it open that nobody had a position," said senior Ryan Schwartz, who's holding the No. 1 role and is set to start the season-opener. "To me that was an option to work hard, come back in the fall and take that position."

The kick is the Eagles are set in the field. Six position starters return, all of whom batted .292 or better, and the only two vacancies were quickly filled. Tyler McBride takes over for Tommy Lentz in center field as a familiar face, an outfielder/pitcher who was just beginning to hit the ball last year when he broke his wrist 11 games in.

Then Hudak and his crew found junior college infielder Aaron Bonomi to take over for Chris Carrara at second base. The Australian native has proven capable of playing his position and backing up a few others, also hitting well in fall practice.

But runs and defense become moot points without any pitching to hold the lead. In the aluminum-bat cave of college baseball, many teams are built to win on the three-run homer, so with scarce pitching, it becomes a question of how many 14-12 games can a team win?

Winthrop thinks it's got the answers. Sure, it'll be an extended audition for the first few games, perhaps every one of the 17 getting a shot. But once conference play begins on March 28, Hudak hopes to have all the roles settled.

"It's just a matter of plugging guys in and seeing what they can do," he said. "Only way to do that is to throw them into the fire."

Heading into the opening weekend, Schwartz leads the Eagles' mound corps with freshman lefty Hamilton Bennett right behind. Billy Tinsley, who transferred in last year only to withdraw from school soon after because of family concerns, is the No. 3 starter and McBride will be the guy when Winthrop hosts St. John's in its first midweek game.

Josh McDonald, who started 11 games last year and was the only multi-game starter beside Schwartz to return, has been moved to closer. Setting up the middle innings before getting to McDonald is where the biggest influx of new faces lies.

Inning-eaters Ryan Mullins and Owen Reid anchor the relief crew with Dane Yoder (11 appearances) close behind. Redshirted freshmen Wade Newman and Mike Ritson (neither threw last year) lead the rest of the staff, with junior college transfer Dave Carbonell, sophomore walk-on Casey Bradwell, sophomore transfer Jason Kosakow and four freshmen rounding it out.

Each brings a certain piece to the puzzle. Fitting them all together to produce a winner is Hudak's mission.

"Owen Reid pitched a lot in the middle last year," Hudak said, ticking off names. "Cam Walters will pitch for us. The other part of our international club is Matteo D'Angelo, who pitched for the Italian national team. Dave Carbonell -- if he throws strikes, he can be effective.

"We know who's going to start on opening weekend and we know that our pitching staff has 14 or 15 real good arms. Just a matter of getting some experience with our young guys."

The pitching's instability was probably a big chunk of the preseason predictions. Although Winthrop has finished first or second in the Big South for five straight seasons, the Eagles only got a fourth-place vote this year behind heavyweight Coastal Carolina, VMI and Liberty.

The preseason poll is tacked on the locker room bulletin board, Winthrop's name outlined in orange highlighter. There's a circle drawn around the three votes the Eagles received that listed them sixth.

"It gives us a little motivation," Bennett said, "especially among the pitchers. We all know it's going to come down to us a lot of times."

Bennett also confirmed what many others have said about this year's Eagles. It seems there's more of a freewheeling atmosphere, a loose, let's-have-fun sense during the practices.

"Last year we struggled a bit because we didn't have strong leadership and we didn't have the team, as a whole," captain Billy Froehlich said. "Everybody's just gelled together and it's one of the better teams I've been on in my baseball career."

The camaraderie has improved immeasurably on the fractured memory of last year's squad, and even with the rest of the Big South no doubt smelling blood in the water at Winthrop's supposed weaknesses, the Eagles aren't concerned. The potential for the club in 2008 seems to be knocking around the minds of the entire team.

Now the Eagles just have to go turn potential into reality.

"We've been near the top of the Big South for a long time, so certainly nobody's feeling sorry for us," Hudak said. "We'll probably talk about it on a regular basis, about the expectations people have for us. Certainly going to work hard every day to meet our expectations."

• Roster, schedule and starting lineup • 4C

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