High expectations a year ago never panned out. If lowered expectations are what it takes for Winthrop baseball to get back into the nation's elite, so be it.
"There's two different outlooks," coach Joe Hudak said Thursday at the team's Media Day. "The general public, the Web sites and the analysts, don't think we're going to be very good.
"But the 36 guys on this club, 32 players and four coaches -- our outlook is slightly different."
Picked to win the Big South Conference in 2007, Winthrop finished second and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. A 15-1 conference start ended with a 1-5 skid, including losing two of three games to Coastal Carolina for the regular-season crown, and the year ended a week later in the Big South tournament.
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The hits kept coming. Alex Wilson and Jason Franzblau, the team's top two pitchers, transferred along with Phil Carey, the Eagles' third-leading hitter. Five-game starter Brett Moore didn't get his scholarship re-offered. Returning starters Billy Froehlich and Bryn Henderson missed fall practice after slight injuries over the summer.
When the so-called experts of college baseball looked at the 2008 Eagles, losing a lot of experience and coming off a 33-27 season, they predicted not-so-great things. The Big South preseason poll, released a few hours before Thursday's press conference, picked the Eagles fourth -- after they'd finished first or second the past five years.
But while many don't believe the Eagles will make much of a dent in the national picture this year, Hudak and Co. have their own opinions.
"We're excited about proving them wrong," Hudak said.
Flanked by captains Froehlich and Eddie Tisdale, sitting in the glistening players' lounge (part of the completed $3.5 million overhaul of The Winthrop Ballpark), Hudak discussed the 2008 season. Team practice begins today and the season-opener is in three weeks, when Winthrop hosts Evansville.
Sure, the Eagles are stocked with youth and inexperience, especially on the pitching staff.
But it could be looking a lot worse.
"It's OK with us if people don't think we're going to be very good," Hudak said. "I picked us second. There were some that picked us sixth. I think we're going to be a lot better than that."
Winthrop returns six position starters, all who hit at least .292 last year and provided almost 54 percent of the team's RBIs. Although it'll be a chore to replace four-year starters Chris Carrara and Tommy Lentz, the holes have been plugged with junior college transfer Aaron Bonomi at second base and Tyler McBride, a redshirt sophomore who missed most of the season after breaking his wrist last year but is a proven center fielder.
The potential pitfall is the pitching. Winthrop's main returning starter, Josh McDonald, has been moved to closer. That leaves nine-game starter Ryan Schwartz (2-3, 4.63 ERA) as the No. 1 guy heading into the season.
Schwartz began fine last year but seemed to hit a wall midseason. Hudak said after breaking down and rebuilding his delivery, Schwartz has returned to his early season form.
That left the other two weekenders as true freshman Hamilton Bennett, a prep phenom from Fort Mill, and Billy Tinsley, who was aboard last year but had to withdraw from school to deal with family issues. McBride will pitch as well as play center and the bullpen returns 33-appearance lefty Ryan Mullins and multi-tasker Owen Reid, but the other assignments are still open.
"It's a work in progress," Hudak said. "They're going to have to learn on the job."
The early schedule, while mostly at home, is again a severe test. The Eagles will host preseason Big East champ St. John's three times and No. 5 North Carolina -- runner-up at the College World Series the past two years -- visits on Feb. 28.
That leads into a three-game set hosting Southern Cal and a four-game series at Rice, all before beginning Big South play.
It won't be anything close to easy to erase the preseason predictions and return to the NCAA tournament, but nobody ever said building a winning program was easy. Hudak, in his 17th year at the helm, credited improved chemistry and a re-emphasis on the "team" concept as the biggest reason not to count the Eagles out.
"Last year, we had a bunch of individual guys not playing as a team," said Froehlich, who with Henderson is fully recovered. "This has been a whole lot easier."
"If we do the right things, show everybody we're working hard, the team will mesh together," added Tisdale.
• NOTE: Freshman outfielder Bennett Jordan, a York native and former star at York Comprehensive High School, will attempt to play the season although he has a slap tear in his right labrum. According to Jordan and Hudak, Jordan needs surgery but doctors have told him the injury won't get worse if he plays the season.
"The question is the pain," Jordan said. "If I can play through it, I'll play."
Jordan has 15-20 games to make a final decision before the deadline for declaring redshirts hits. If he decides to sit out at that time, he'll still have four years of eligibility.