Ben Paxton, who has been coaching cross country at the collegiate level for nearly 25 years, is dealing with a first going into the 2008 season.
"This is the youngest men's team I've had in my 19 years at Winthrop," Paxton said. "It might be my youngest team ever. We could be led by a sophomore and four freshmen. Off of last year's third-place squad, we lost our No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 runners because of graduation or illness.
"Obviously, the future looks good, but we have the potential to surprise a lot of people this season. The team you see in the first two meets is not the team you'll see at the conference meet."
The No. 4 runner who does return is Casey Lyons, who was last year's Big South Conference Freshman of the Year after his 13th-place finish in the conference meet at UNC Asheville.
"Like many freshmen, Casey struggled early, but he came on strong at the end of the season. He was our first male conference freshman of the year in cross country," Paxton said. "He really came on in track and finished second to (Matt Elliott) in the 1,500 at our meet. He also qualified for the USATF Juniors, but he was hurt and we decided not to run him.
"With our big three gone, it's his time to step up and shine."
Gaines Bailey is back for his senior season after taking a year off to study in Japan. With Northwestern's Brandon Hudgins taking a medical redshirt this year, Bailey and Ben Henderson are the only seniors on the thin seven-man roster.
"Gaines ran No. 1 for us two years ago and had two top-20 finishes," Paxton said. "Michael Craig, the only junior in the program, is also taking a medical redshirt this season."
That leaves Lyons, the lone sophomore, and freshmen Kyle Carufe, Jonathan Fazzary, Adam Leroux and Dustin Ubbing to carry the load.
"Going from high school cross country to college is a big transition for freshmen because they're going from running 5ks to 8ks," Paxton said. "The basketball court is the same in high school and college, and so is the football field.
"It's going to take them a few meets to get adjusted, but like I said, we have some talented freshmen."
Leroux was provincial champion in cross country and track in Nova Scotia, while Upping was one of the top distance runners from Ohio. Carufe and his cousin, Fazzary, were among the top distance runners in Florida and New York.
"I really didn't know they were cousins when I started recruiting them," Paxton said.
Both the men and women were picked fifth in the BSC's preseason poll.
The Lady Eagles are also young, but do have more experience than the men and are coming off an excellent outdoor season.
"I was surprised the women were fifth," Paxton said. "Sometimes, I think (the voters) forget what we do in track. Fifth is probably about right for the men."
Junior Lisa Sickman has returned to her freshman form after battling mono last season. Carey Phillips did not train early last year, but came on to set the record in the 10,000 meters.
"We thought Carly Moss was going to be one of our top runners, but she was slowed by shin splints," Paxton said. "But they're all healthy and if they run like I expect them to, we could be in the top three come conference meet."
The diminutive Phillips is looking for the women to have a strong 2008.
"We have a solid top three and everyone is so enthusiastic about running," said Phillips, a Chesnee High School product who set the school record at 10,000 meters with a time of 37:31. "I feel real good right now.
"We have four freshmen. We have a pretty good balance top to bottom."
Paxton said he's looking for freshmen Jessica Schofield, Sara Shultz, Jordan Starcher and Tori Koterba to contribute.
Winthrop opens the season today at the Covered Bridge Open hosted by Appalachian State.
"This is a meet where everyone that runs wants to have fun and see where they are," Phillips said.