Winthrop track and field coach Ben Paxton gazed at his team warming up at a recent practice and said with no intended harm, "It's looking OK right now."
He wasn't putting down his squad. But with several of his athletes feeling the bumps and bruises of a chilly winter and nursing injuries heading into the meat of the indoor season, Paxton figured the Eagles' best chances to shine might come during the outdoor season.
"Our biggest thing is we're hosting the conference outdoor championship," Paxton said. "To be able to host the conference championship is a huge advantage."
The Big South title events aren't until April, so the Eagles are taking their time preparing for them. Some of the Eagles' standouts -- discus thrower Ashley Howard and distance runner Matt Elliot -- are already well on their way to performing well in that meet and perhaps qualifying for nationals.
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Some others -- notably hurdler Kandrick Cooper -- are biding their time.
"(Cooper)'s just trying to get healthy," Paxton said. "He's probably going to qualify for nationals at either the conference championships or the last chance meet. He's missed the NCAAs by one spot the past two years.
"If he can get a stretch of health, he can be a force to be reckoned with."
Cooper's story is a familiar one to Winthrop fans. A dominating career in the 110-meter hurdles has gotten Cooper so close to the NCAA championships he can see it, only to fall just short every time.
He's been practicing with his hamstring wrapped in miles of Ace bandages, trying to get the strain out before the Eagles head to Clemson this week. If he can't go this week, there's still plenty of time to get healthy, but it'd still be nice to be back out there flashing that championship form.
"It's getting better," Cooper said. "But there's no pressure. I've already made up my mind. I'm setting my program."
While Cooper continues to rehab, Howard and Elliot are already on the cusp of qualifying for the NCAAs. Howard won first place by more than 15 feet at the Akron Invitational two weeks ago, and although she'll have to wait until March for an outdoor toss, she looks ready.
Elliot, a pleasant surprise as a newcomer to the program, already set the school record in the 800 and his time leads the Big South.
"The 800 is probably my strongest event," said Elliot, who ran for Presbyterian before coming to Winthrop for graduate school with one year of eligibility left. "I also run the 1,500, but I'll do whatever coach tells me to do. We're going to try and feel my way out right now."
High jumper Jason Williams is also back in action, claiming third place at Akron a year after he was in the NCAA East Regional. The Eagles could also get a championship shot from triple-jumpers Sara Young and Keary Simms, plus 400 competitor Daryl Green.
"It should be an interesting season," Paxton said. "With the women, we're rebuilding and reloading. The men should be top two or three."
• NOTE: Paxton also confirmed that junior Brandon Hudgins has a sinus problem and will redshirt this season. A local standout from Northwestern High School, Hudgins will have two years of eligibility remaining.