Winthrop's softball team will face its most ambitious schedule in coach Mark Cooke's 19-year tenure.
"It's a scary schedule if you don't love competition," Cooke said. "But that's how you get better. We were able to get the schedule because of our success last year."
The defending Big South Conference champions, who set a school record with 50 wins and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time, play 56 games this season with 25 against teams ranked either nationally or regionally.
Winthrop's schedule features home games against Georgia Tech (March 20), South Carolina (April 2) and North Carolina (April 23). The Lady Eagles also host the Big South Conference Tournament May 8-10.
The Lady Eagles, 50-18 last season, open in Palm Springs, Calif. in a tournament hosted by perennial power Oregon State.
Winthrop plays Cal State Northridge (Feb. 8), Oregon State (Feb. 8), California (Feb. 9), Colorado State (Feb. 9) and Cal Davis (Feb. 10).
"Every team out there is a top quality team," Cooke said of the field that combined for 213 wins last season.
The Lady Eagles will play the first game at USC Upstate, formerly USC Spartanburg, on Feb. 20.
"I'm an alum and coached there," Cooke said. "Their coach, Chris Hawkins, was my roommate in college and was one of my assistant coaches. I'm looking forward to that game."
Then it's back on the bus to Salem, Va., for the Hokie Memorial Tournament, which runs Feb. 22-25. Winthrop's side of the bracket includes Rutgers, Virginia Tech, St. Josephs and Troy.
Cooke's team finally gets to play at Terry Field on Feb. 27 when Gardner-Webb comes to town. Then it's off to Columbus, Ga. for the Feb. 29-Mar. 2 Lead-Off Classic. Joining the Lady Eagles in that three-day event are Illinois State, Auburn, DePaul and Michigan.
"That's probably the toughest field we'll see," Cooke said. "Michigan won the world series two years ago."
Winthrop host Charlotte at home on Mar. 5, and then heads to Marietta, Ga., along with Akron, Vermont, Samford and Western Carolina for the Buzz Classic, which runs Mar 7-9.
Winthrop hosts the 12-team adidas Invitational March 14-16.
The Lady Eagles lost four starters, but the standout pitching staff of Meghan Evans, 25-7 and the Big South Conference freshman of the year, Cari Wooldridge, 17-6 and the tournament MVP and Izzy Trottier, 8-5, return.
Lisa Kingsmore, .401, Tessa Thomas, .378, and Stephanie Reid, 332, are expected to lead the offense.
• LOOKING TO REBOUND: The women's basketball team continues a six-game road swing in Greenville, N.C. on Friday when the Lady Eagles take on East Carolina in the first round of the Lady Pirate Invitational.
They'll meet either Massachusetts or Jacksonville on Saturday.
The Lady Eagles are coming off a 63-52 loss to Conference USA tournament champion Tulane on Sunday.
Two areas coach Bud Childers will stress this week are rebounding and taking care of the basketball. The Lady Eagles were out rebound 43-34 -- Tulane had 18 offensive rebounds -- and they committed 20 turnovers.
"Our rebounding (Sunday), especially on the defensive end really hurt us," Childers said. "When you play good teams on the road you can't give up second and third shots like we did and expect to win."
Childers said the Lady Eagles seem to make mistakes in bunches.
"We had stretches of five or six possessions against Tulane where we'd turn it over three or four times," Childers said. "We just have to have better ball control."
Rice jumped to a 16-0 lead on Winthrop, but the Lady Eagles fought back and would build a 10-point lead in the second half, only to lose in overtime.
After Friday, the Lady Eagles have three more games on the road before returning to the Winthrop Coliseum to face Johnson C. Smith on Dec. 9.
• MORE HONORS: Juniors Shannon Sitzmann and Pohai Nu'uhiwa were named to the Big South Conference all-tournament volleyball team.
Sitzmann, the conference player of the year, had 48 kills in three matches, while Nu'uhiwa, the BSC's scholar-athlete for 2006, had 43 digs. It was the second straight year the dynamic duo earned all-tournament honors.
Winthrop saw its five-year stranglehold on the championships end with a 3-0 loss to the Liberty Flames, who were tournament champions in 2001.
• OUTSIDE IN: The men's and women's track teams open their nine-event indoor season in Clemson on Dec. 1.
Since no member of the Big South Conference has an indoor facility, they'll be back in "Tiger Town" for the league meet.
Winthrop's men will be led by seniors Kandrick Cooper and Jason Williams.
Coach Ben Paxton calls Cooper one of the top 10 hurdlers in the nation, while Williams gets better with every high jump.
Cooper ran a school-record 7.88 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles last season, while Williams, whose twin brother Phillip played basketball for the Eagles, holds the high jump record with a leap of 6-feet-11 3/4 inches.
Paxton is also looking for big things out of Daryl Green and Felicia Boulware.
• HELPING HAND: The men's and women's basketball teams have partnered with the Toys For Tots program to help underprivileged children at Christmas.
The men will collect toys at their Dec. 4 game with Akron, while the women have designated the Dec. 9 game against Johnson C. Smith.
Fans who bring a new toy will receive a free ticket with the purchase of a game ticket.