Eagles set to battle baseball royalty

Winthrop's playing a team, not a reputation.

But the reputation's awfully impressive.

"Knowing Southern Cal, knowing the mystique, is just going to make us want to step up even more," said left fielder Tony Brunetti, discussing the Eagles' three-game series against the Trojans that begins today. "It's a big series for us. If we play our game, there's no reason why we can't win."

The Trojans, 12-time national champions and featuring a list of pro signees longer than the first-base line, ooze history from every pore. They've got two players -- Adam Dedeaux and Jordan Hershiser -- whose familes are steeped in baseball tradition (the late Rod Dedeaux, Adam's grandfather, is the Trojans' all-time winningest coach and Orel Hershiser, Jordan's dad, won a Cy Young Award and a World Series MVP award). Their assistant coach, Tom House, caught Hank Aaron's 715th home run ball while he was standing in Atlanta's bullpen.

They're also 6-4 this year and are coming off two straight losing seasons. While picked to finish high in the extremely talented Pac-10 this year, the Trojans aren't dominant.

Not that it's got the Eagles (3-5) licking their chops.

"We'd like to be playing those national championship teams," coach Joe Hudak said. "They've had a couple of seasons that aren't indicative of their history. Look at their team this year, it's a very, very good club."

It's also a tremendous coup that Southern Cal agreed to play in Rock Hill. Most major programs don't like to travel to mid-major towns, preferring to play schedule-stuffing non-conference games at home. But the Trojans kept their word from two years ago and are coming to town, while the Eagles will return the favor and fly to Los Angeles next year.

"My thought process was a lot of the West Coast teams feel that they get slighted in the RPI because they play each other so many times," Hudak said. "A couple of years ago, I thought, 'Maybe we can get them out to play in one of our tournaments.' Play three East Coast teams, might help their RPI. But coach Gillespie just said, 'Let's just play a series.'"

Mike Gillespie, the former coach, retired and the job went to his son-in-law, Chad Kreuter. Kreuter kept the agreement and Winthrop geared up for a huge series.

It'll be the first of two straight weekends playing a collegiate power. Winthrop heads to Texas for a four-game series at No. 13 Rice next week.

"We're very appreciative a school like Southern Cal would come here and play us," Hudak said. "While their record hasn't been great ... there won't be anything I'll have to use to get our guys to play."

Winthrop was forced to take four days off when Tuesday's game hosting Wake Forest was rained out. It was a bad situation since Hudak reckoned the Demon Deacons, coming off four games in three days, weren't going to have one of their regular pitchers starting while Winthrop had Dave Carbonell, Ryan Mullins and Robert Lake all at 100 percent.

Win or lose, it would have been an RPI-strengthening game, but nobody can control the weather. Hudak's hoping the momentum from the Eagles' last game, a 5-0 win over Kent State, will carry over to today despite the unplanned break.

The Eagles are healthy, but the pitching rotation will slightly change, Ryan Schwartz scheduled to go today while No. 3 starter Billy Tinsley will move into the No. 2 spot and pitch on Saturday. Hamilton Bennett, the former No. 2, will throw on Sunday.

"Doesn't have anything to do with how anyone's pitched," Hudak said. "All three have pitched very well. Just going to change it around this weekend."

Hopefully, the rain will hold off (today's forecast looks nasty) and Winthrop can achieve what it was trying to do against Wake Forest -- wins against bigger schools that will get them on the NCAA tournament selection committee's radar.

"No matter who we're playing, we always expect them to bring their best game," Brunetti said. "It should be a fun time."

n NOTE: Hudak said he's talking with Wake Forest to try to reschedule the rainout, but nothing's been set. The Eagles are also seeking two more opponents to fill out their maximum 56-game regular season, but have yet to find definite opponents or dates.