College Sports

Eagles open Big South play at VMI

The hope is that Winthrop's aggressive non-conference scheduling will pay off, beginning this weekend.

It might have already begun.

"I think we're playing with a little more confidence now," coach Joe Hudak said. "Our kids understand we did play a very tough schedule. We still have a chance to be a very good club."

Hudak's philosophy is simple. To impress the NCAA tournament selection committee, a mid-major like Winthrop must schedule a lot of ranked "name" schools. The RPI starts to rise and a few wins over those schools really get the Eagles on the national radar.

He could have scheduled a bunch of cupcakes and be 20-4 right now. He could also say the heck with everything, tell his team to take the next two months off and just come out for the Big South Conference tournament, which sends its champion to the NCAAs on an automatic pass.

But Hudak's plan is two-fold. One, have the Eagles in position to go to the NCAAs on an at-large berth, no matter what happens at the BSC tournament. And two, schedule not just to make it to an NCAA Regional, but to win it.

"Our goal is to win the Big South, it's not to win an X number of games," he said. "Obviously, we'd have liked to have won a few more. I think we're better prepared playing the schedule that we've played than if our record was reversed."

A little less than halfway through the season, the aggressive schedule hasn't been kind. The Eagles began 3-14, dropping games/series to Southern Cal, Rice, North Carolina and St. John's.

Since then, they've won six of seven. Now it should get a whole lot easier.

"I mean, we're out at Rice, and all they do is bring in guys who throw 90, 91, 92 from the bullpen," said first baseman Eddie Tisdale recently. "We're not going to see anybody like that in the Big South. The conference has got good teams and it may be the best it's ever been right now, but it's not going to be like some of these teams we've played."

The hope is Winthrop begins BSC play today with the first of a three-game series at VMI and the Eagles, who have been swinging hot sticks lately, will figure out quickly the Keydets aren't Rice or North Carolina. The hope is Winthrop's staff, which has had acceptable results lately, will realize VMI batters aren't wearing an interlocking "SC" or "St.J" on their caps.

It's a bright horizon, but nobody's saying conference play is going to be one extended win. Right now, it's just that word again.

Hope.

"We're not going to see anybody that's better than Southern Cal or Rice or North Carolina, or any arms that are better than St. John's," Hudak said. "VMI has good arms, but they're not anything we haven't seen."

VMI, which Winthrop (9-15) swept at home last season to kick-start a 14-1 BSC beginning, is 9-13 but began conference play last week with a sweep of High Point. The Keydets returned a few superlatives, including Tanner Biagini, the Big South's third-leading hitter (.402), 2007 strikeout artist Michael Bowman and hurler Chris Henderson, in third place on the conference's ERA chart (2.23).

The Eagles are coming in on a hot streak, having smashed The Citadel 11-6 two days ago on the road and winning three of four from Wagner last week. Winthrop has elevated six players to .300 or above and while the team ERA has ballooned to 5.14, this weekend's supposed starters -- Ryan Schwartz, Hamilton Bennett and Ryan Mullins -- have pitched extremely well recently.

The team's second season began after the disastrous four-game sweep at Rice. Since then, Winthrop is 6-1 and has looked very good doing it.

"We talked after the Rice game about how tough the schedule has been," Hudak said. "We all agreed we're better prepared. A lot of people wrote us off before the season started. We're looking forward to the challenge of, I think, trying to prove to people they may have written us off a little early."

• NOTE: The only injury is to catcher John Murrian, who has played designated hitter or sat the past few games with a nagging right elbow injury. The stress reaction seems to have healed enough so Murrian can return to the backstop, but if he can't go today, he'll be replaced by either Billy Froehlich or Eddie Rohan.

WINTHROP GAMEDAY

WINTHROP (9-15, 0-0 BIG SOUTH) AT VMI (9-13, 3-0)

• When: 4 p.m. today, 4 p.m. on Saturday, 1 p.m. on Sunday

• Where: Gray-Minor Stadium, Lexington, Va.

• Tickets: Available at the box office

• On the Web: Live stats available at vmikeydets.com

• On deck: Winthrop plays at College of Charleston at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

JUNIOR 1B EDDIE TISDALE

Tisdale is hitting .352 with five doubles and 10 RBIs and has started every game. He has only committed three errors in more than 200 chances.

Did you know?

Tisdale enjoys watching "Paula's Home Cooking" on the Food Network. He has no interest in cooking but likes to watch it.

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