I just realized it has been almost three weeks since my last blog post. Part of that was due to being on vacation for this past week, but either way, plenty has happened in the last few weeks, and the spring conference championship season is about to get underway, so I figured I should update everyone on what’s going on around the WU athletic program. I won’t focus on men’s basketball on this post, as I’m waiting for the Eagles to possibly sign up to three more guys in the next few weeks so that I can better assess what the team looks like going into the summer.
Before I get into the spring sports, I did want to make sure that everyone noticed that Schaquilla Nunn got drafted in the 3rd round (the 25th overall pick) of the WNBA draft by the San Antonio Stars. Nunn spent the past year at Tennessee, but prior to that, she was one of the best players in Winthrop women’s basketball history, playing a key role on the team that won the Big South (and made the NCAAs) in 2014. After sitting out the 2015-16 season due to injury, she graduated from Winthrop and transferred to play her final season with the Vols. Her absence the last two seasons was very noticeable on the court as WU really struggled. As far as I know, she’s the first WU player to get chosen in the WNBA draft.
I can’t quite figure out this year’s WU baseball team. Every time I think they are figuring things out, they do something like get swept by Presbyterian at home. But then they follow up those low moments with something good like sweeping Liberty on the road, which just happened this past weekend. WU sits in a tie for first in the Big South with Presbyterian (who I guess isn’t as bad as I thought) at 8-4, though the whole league is pretty tight, with only 4 games separating the top from the bottom. The Eagles have been carried in conference play by a strong weekend starting rotation of Reece Green (3-1, 3.10 ERA, .243 opponent avg in conference games), Nate Pawelczyk (2-1, 3.33 ERA, .266 opponent avg in conference games), and Colton Rendon (3-1, 0.95 ERA, .170 opponent avg in conference games). If that strong pitching can continue, WU should remain at/near the top of the standings, and there’s no reason why the Eagles can’t win the league this year. The Eagles face North Carolina A&T and Wofford in mid-week contests this week, before heading back up to VA to face Longwood in a weekend series.
Also, the professional baseball season got started in the past couple of weeks, and there are at least a couple of former Eagles playing minor league ball. Eric Ruth has been bouncing back and forth between Yankees’ Extended Spring Training and the Double-A Trenton Thunder. He’s come out of the bullpen in his two outings for the Thunder so far. Joey Strain is playing for the Modesto Nuts (the Advanced Single-A affiliate of the Mariners) and has been solid in three relief appearances so far. Chris Leroux retired from baseball this spring after playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic after a long professional career that saw him see some time in the Majors. From what I can tell, TJ Olesczuk got released from the Orioles last fall and Tyler Mizenko got released from the Giants this spring, and I do not know if either are pursuing professional baseball any further. Also, I have not been able to figure out the current status of Matt Pierpont (played last season in Double-A for the Rockies) or Roger Gonzalez (played last season in Single-A for the Athletics). Finally, John Murrian is now in his fourth season as a bullpen catcher for the Detroit Tigers.
The Big South appears to be a two-team race this season, as Liberty and Campbell are the only teams in the eight-team softball league to have an over .500 conference record. Winthrop currently sits in a tie for third at 7-8, but the Eagles have a tough week ahead, facing UNC on the road on Wednesday in a non-conference matchup before coming home to face the league leading Flames this upcoming weekend. WU has struggled lately, dropping 2 out of 3 this past weekend vs. Charleston Southern, and getting swept the previous weekend at Campbell. Those series sandwiched a pair of midweek losses to Furman, along with a loss to Gardner-Webb, which gave GWU the season sweep over the Eagles.
Track & Field
WU continues to have a few athletes sitting in good position to qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary Meet. On the latest descending order list, Kevin Mills sits in 16th place in the region for the 3000m steeplechase, Alesha Love is 16th in the 400m hurdles, and Quemell Brave is 26th in the long jump. The top 48 in the region will qualify. Taryn DeLeon and Cullen Barringer have had good performances in the heptathlon and decathlon, respectively, though the qualifying standards are much tougher in those events, as those events are not contested at the Preliminary meets, and only the top 24 nationally qualify for the National Championship meet. WU will compete at Duke this upcoming weekend.
When I last posted about spring sports, I mentioned how WU was having to deal with the lack of a healthy goalie on the roster. Against good opponents, that seems to pop up as a problem, as WU gave up 18.5 goals/game vs. High Point and Campbell in the team’s two conference losses. But the Eagles have played well lately, winning three straight, only giving up 7.7 goals in the last three contests and now sit tied for third in the league with a 3-2 record. WU gets to close the regular season at home this week, first against winless Gardner-Webb on Wednesday, then against Liberty in the finale on Saturday. The game against the Flames will likely determine who will finish 3rd and 4th in the league. WU can’t get to either of the top two spots, so the Eagles won’t get a first round bye in the conference tournament (only 6 teams qualify), but by finishing 3rd or 4th, WU will get to host a first round game. While High Point and Campbell are currently tied for first at 5-0, HPU appears to be the heavy favorite in the league as they have won each of their conference matches by double-figures, while Campbell’s wins over WU & LU were only by one goal each. The #1 seed hosts the semis and finals, so it is likely that HPU will host, and for WU to three-peat as tournament champs, they’ll almost surely have to get an upset win over the Panthers.
Ninety Six, SC will be the focal point of Big South golf this week as both championships will be held at the Patriot Golf Club. The women go first, teeing off this morning (Monday, April 17) and playing three rounds, wrapping up on Wednesday. The men’s championship will be held on Friday, April 21 through Sunday, April 23. Both WU programs have been a bit inconsistent this season, but each has enough individual talent on the rosters to win a championship if they have a good week. The women’s team will put Ashley Sloup, Chelsea Dantonio, Julie Reinertsen, Chandler Case, and Louise Jeppesen on the course. You can follow their progress here. The men’s pairings have not yet been released.
It is also championship week for the tennis teams. Both tournaments will be held at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex in Winston-Salem, NC. The men start play on Wednesday, April 19. WU finished in the middle of the pack with a 4-3 conference record, earning the #5 seed. The Eagles will face #4 Longwood in the quarterfinals at noon on Wednesday, and the Lancers won the regular season meeting between the teams in a tight 4-3 match. A win in the quarterfinals will almost surely lead to a match against top-seed Presbyterian in Thursday’s semifinals. The finals will be held on Friday. The women’s tournament starts Thursday with the 8/9 play-in round, which WU will have an eye on as the Eagles earned the #1 seed and will face the winner of that Longwood/Radford match in Friday’s quarterfinals at 9am. The Eagles beat each of those teams 7-0 in the regular season. The semifinals are on Saturday, with the finals on Sunday. It appears to be a three-team battle for the championship as Winthrop, Charleston Southern, and Liberty all finished 7-1 in the league. WU’s only loss was to CSU, CSU’s only loss was to LU, and LU’s only loss was to WU. Winthrop ended up winning the critical three-team tiebreaker, which could be huge as the Eagles will only have to face one of those other two teams, while the Bucs and Flames will likely have to face each other in a tough semifinal match. The Eagles have won 18 of the 30 women’s tennis tournaments in Big South history, which includes 8 of the last 9 & 13 of the last 15 tournaments. Winning #19 won’t be easy, as the Flames and Bucs are both strong teams, but Coach Cid and the Eagles always seem to play their best when tournament time comes around.