It wasn't that long ago when coach Bud Childers, in his second year of a reclamation project at Winthrop, put the youngest team in the country on the floor.
The core of the 2005-06 team was his first recruiting class -- six in all -- thrown into the fire of Division I college basketball. Ashley Fann, Tiffany Rodd, Yvonne van Daalen, Franchesca Davenport, Ashley Haugtvedt and Shelly Hankins were burned many times the first two years.
That was expected by Childers. Winthrop is his sixth "project."
"When you take over these type programs, you know it is a process. There are no short cuts. You have to recruit your type players, coach them up day in and day out, and expose them to experiences that will prepare them for a realistic challenge at some point," Childers said.
"We feel we have done that here and now is our time to make it happen. They have lived through the growing pains of the program and now are poised to possibly close out their careers as champions," Childers said.
The Eagles turned the corner last year. Coming off a 6-26 season, Winthrop won a school-best 20 games. They finished above .500 in the Big South Conference for the first time and are now, realistically, looking at a conference championship.
"When I arrived here four years ago, the program definitely was in need of a life line," Childers said. "We started at the bottom and have worked our way steadily up toward the top. We are the most improved team in Division I over the past three years. The play of the team, the expectations of the fans, and the expectations within the program have been on the rise as well over these three years.
"This year we have a junior and senior laden ball club. They are experienced and ready to make that next step to be a challenger for the league championship."
That's what the preseason polls would suggest. Winthrop was picked to finish second in the Big South behind Liberty.
"Bud has them all back," Coastal Carolina coach Alan LeForce said. LeForce, entering his 12th season with the Chants, is the dean of the league's coaches. "He went through it all, but he has a veteran team now. They know how to win. Fann is an excellent player and he's brought in some good recruits."
The starting lineup is virtually set. With everyone returning from last year's team, Childers has had ample time to think about it. They are all seniors.
Fann will be the power forward. Rodd will start at shooting guard with van Daalen running the point. Jennifer Walker transferred in from Walters State last year and will start at center. The small forward position was Davenport's until the preseason started. Junior Shanice Cole reported in great shape with a smooth stroke, according to Childers, and is pressing for the starting role.
Fann is the vocal one and the leader of this team. The 6-footer from Hazel Green, Ala., led the team in scoring (13.7 ppg) and rebounds (6.8 rpg) last year. She is unique in being able to effectively post up, drive to the basket or take the jump shot.
She likes what she has seen in practices thus far.
"The preseason has gone very well. We are making good progress. Coach has most of his system in place," Fann said.
Fann was a First Team All-Big South selection last year and was named to the preseason all-conference team this year.
Rodd may be the best long-range shooter in the league. She will start at shooting guard and needs just 39 3-pointers to reach the conference all-time mark. She has made 74 each of the last two years. Don't be surprised if she and Fann are both all-conference selection at year's end.
Rodd is more subdued than Fann, but has improved each year at Winthrop.
At point guard, Childers has van Daalen. The coach said van Daalen is perhaps the best playmaker in the conference. She was slowed a little in the preseason with an ankle injury, but has recovered and is ready to go. She averaged 6.1 points and 4.9 assists a game last year.
Walker, at 6-2, gave Winthrop an inside presence last year. She started 18 games and got to the free throw line more than any other player. She will, however, need to improve her free throw shooting after hitting just 48 percent last year.
Davenport is a versatile player that can play point and power forward as well. She contributed 6.4 points and 4.1 boards a game last year. Cole played in 31 games last year, all off the bench.
The bench is deep with Shelly Hankins, Ashley Haugtvedt, Cole, Kathi Ryska and Jessica Fansler.
Hankins is the team's best defensive player. She is a redshirt junior since she missed all but seven games her freshman year with a season-ending knee injury that required surgery. She had surgery again this month to remove some torn cartilage but is on target to be at full-speed soon.
Haugtvedt, a 6-2 center, has good range and gets stronger as the season progresses. Cole is the best athlete on the team.
Ryska, a junior from Germany, forms an all-European duo at the point with van Daalen. Fansler, a 5-11 junior guard/forward, can score in bunches at times and is one of the top free throw shooters on the team.
Childers wants to maintain good inside/outside balance on offense. He wants to get the ball inside to the big players and create good shot opportunities for the guards -- especially from behind the arc.
Even with a 20-12 season last year, Childers thinks the Eagles left some things on the court. He wants to see improvement in three areas this year: turnovers, free throw percentage and a consistent third and fourth scorer every night.
"If we get that on a regular basis, then we can be tough to beat," he said. "The potential of this year's team is awesome, but that also means everyone is going to be ready to get after us every night."