"It just happened," Winthrop softball coach Mark Cooke said. "It wasn't planned by any means."
It started innocently enough -- Cooke was recruiting, one of his friends who coached summer league teams in Canada mentioned he might have some players, Cooke liked what he saw. But the first three players became six and the six became 10.
And Winthrop softball became good -- real, real good.
As the Eagles stormed to their best season in history last year, winning the Big South Conference and advancing to their first NCAA tournament, other schools looked at the Canadian influence of Megan Evans, Lisa Kingsmore and Tessa Thomas and figured what worked for Winthrop would work for them. Cooke said when he went to Canada again last summer to check out the latest haul of recruits, he saw Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Georgia, among others, also bidding for the Canadian influence.
"It's one of those things, you keep going to the same fishing place because you keep getting bites there," Cooke said. "You keep having success, you keep going back."
The only problem now is plenty of others have figured out Cooke's spot. But it's sort of a good problem to have -- Cooke and Winthrop have already landed a solid group that posted one stupendous season and is aching for more.
Plus, it never hurts for tiny mid-major Winthrop to become a player on the national scene.
"It's going to be hard because they know what we're capable of and they heard about us," said Evans, last year's Big South Freshman of the Year and the ace of the pitching staff. "I still don't think everybody knows about us. We might catch a couple of people off-guard."
The Eagles have 10 Canadians on their 20-woman roster this year. That's actually lower than the 11 (out of 17) they had last year, but the influence is clear.
Kingsmore (.401) and Thomas (.378) are Winthrop's top two returning hitters, ranking above graduated Canadian seniors Laura Hill and Jenny Scrymgeour last year. Evans and Izzy Trottier make up two-thirds of the pitching staff, a lethal 1-2 combo that combined for 273 strikeouts and only 63 walks last season.
The team batted .321, ninth-best in the country, and averaged 5.79 runs per game, 13th nationally. The Eagles shattered 17 school records and made their first NCAA tournament appearance last year, where they battled eventual Women's College World Series runner-up Tennessee for the championship of the Volunteers' regional.
But even with all of the accolades, including an overwhelming prediction to repeat as Big South champ and Kingsmore named Big South Preseason Player of the Year, the Eagles didn't get a lot of national recognition this year.
That's fine -- didn't get any last year, either.
Cooke replaced his original three Canadians -- Scrymgeour, Hill and Hilary Peacock, along with fellow senior Lauren Blaser -- with seven freshmen, all from the same Ontario stomping grounds.
And there's no better time to be involved with Winthrop softball, whether as a player, coach or fan.
"These players don't feel external pressure, their pressure comes from themselves," Cooke explained. "They expect to win. In the (Big South) tournament, we were behind 4-0 to Coastal in the first two innings. I was sitting there looking perplexed and Tessa Thomas walks by and taps me on the back and says, 'Don't worry coach, I got this.'
"That's how they play."
The Canadian connection has gotten Winthrop into the driver's seat, ready to repeat and hopefully augment a 50-18 season that netted the team's first Big South championship since 1991. Cooke, last season's conference coach of the year, returns six of his top eight hitters and his entire pitching staff, one that doesn't rely on just one arm but can hand out a lefty-righty combo or a 1-2-3 look for a weekend conference series.
Throw in that Winthrop not only set school records but completely obliterated the old ones -- the old record for season wins, for instance, was a measly 42 -- and it's easy to see why the Eagles are anxious to get on the field.
They're in California for the Cathedral City Kick Off, battling Cal State Northridge and Oregon State today. Before they left, they were taking advantage of one of the rare rain-free days for some outdoor practice.
"It's not like a nervous feeling, like it was last year," Kingsmore said. "We didn't really have much to fall back on. But with this year, with how good we did last year ...
"Overall, we're going to kick some butt."
Forgive the false confidence, but the Eagles don't feel any need to disguise their talent. Cooke again loaded up on an aggressive non-conference slate -- some of the country's powers, impressed with Winthrop's 2007 season, called him to ask about playing -- and the team is anxious to prove it belongs.
They'll play again in the Buzz Classic in Marietta, Ga., which put an early stamp on last year. They only play twice at home in their first 19 games. Southeastern and West Coast teams are more prevalent all over the schedule.
No matter. To be the best, you've got to beat the best.
"These kids got a spot in history," Cooke said. "They want another one."
The Canadian camaraderie is evident among the entire team, the players saying all of them get along no matter where they're from. Thomas, who estimates most of the Canadian players grew up within an hour of each other, said most of them spotted others playing on all-star or summer-league teams and the relationship grew once they reported to Rock Hill.
"Over six or seven years, you kind of hear about everyone," Thomas said. "Once we all got down here, it just started taking off."
"It'd be unusual (to have this many) on any other team but ours," followed Stephanie Reid.
Cooke said he'd obviously look North to replace his three seniors after this year -- Reid, Trottier and Sarah Magee call it quits in May, or hopefully June -- but that's in the future. Right now's about enjoying the present.
And what a present -- the kind that's expected to keep on giving well after the holiday season.
"You know, I went 68 straight games with the same lineup," Cooke said. "Last year, we knew the table was set ... everything was in place.
"This year, we know what we can do. We just have to go do it."