I wanted to get this article posted before the Big South baseball tournament gets started on Tuesday, May 22 (though I may be a little late in getting it up before the first game starts). Once the tournament starts, I don’t want to worry about big picture questions, I just want to watch the Eagles play (unfortunately on-line…I can’t make it to Lynchburg) and hope to see the squad lift the trophy on Saturday and get back to the NCAAs…but I feel like this is an article that needed to be written, no matter if WU goes 0-2 this week, or wins the whole thing. So before I get into the main reason for the article, make sure to check the Eagles out as they start their tournament journey on Tuesday night, probably around 8:30pm or so, against Gardner-Webb.
The Eagles enter this year’s tournament as the #4 seed, finishing the regular season with a 15-12 Big South record, and 24-29 overall. This is a bit of a surprise as the Eagles were voted as the conference’s preseason favorite (by a pretty healthy margin), which was the first time since 2007 that WU was picked to win the league. The team had high expectations this year, with even some hope that the team could get in the at-large mix for the NCAAs, so that the team didn’t have to rely on winning the conference tournament, which given its format (and often due to weather delays) is often an unpredictable battle of pitching attrition. Not only is the overall record under .500, but the team currently has an RPI ranking in the 190s…which puts it in range for the worst season-ending RPI for Winthrop in the last 20 years (the 2012-14 stretch also saw the team finish in the 180s-190s in the RPI). Two of the last three seasons (2015 & 2017) were promising, with the Eagles finishing with 40 wins in 2015 and a 1st place regular season finish last year (and a top-100 RPI in each of those years) but the seasons surrounding those years have not been anywhere close to that good. The last Winthrop baseball team to make the NCAA Tournament was in 2006, and that team made it with an at-large bid. Since that season, the Eagles had that regular season title last year and finished first in the South Division in 2014 (though were under .500 overall that season). Also since that last NCAA Tournament appearance, WU has had two appearances in the Big South Tournament title game, in 2009 (losing to Coastal Carolina) and 2014 (losing to Campbell).
Now for a history lesson: Winthrop won the Big South Tournament twice early in the conference’s history (1985 & 1987) before the league had an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. WU would finally break through to the NCAAs in 1995 when the Eagles won the regular season title (there was no conference tournament that season) and had a good showing, winning their first two games of their Regional (which was 6 teams in that era) over Alabama and Richmond before dropping games to Clemson and Alabama to end their season. The Eagles got back to the NCAAs in 1999, finishing 2nd in the Big South standings, and then winning the tournament in Conway (over Coastal in the Finals). WU performed well again on the big stage, upsetting Tulane in the first game, the top seed of their region (and 1999 was the first season with the format that we currently have of 4-team Regionals), before dropping a close contest to Auburn, and then getting eliminated by Tulane. Two years after that, the Eagles became the first team in Big South history to earn an at-large bid, making the 2001 NCAA Tournament as a #2 seed in their region, and winning a pair of games in the Regional before getting eliminated.
Not only was that 2001 season a landmark year due to earning the at-large bid, but that was also the year when most of the renovations to Winthrop Ballpark were made, which changed the venue for WU baseball from essentially a high school level field to a legitimate college stadium. And after a rebuilding year in 2002 and then a couple of solid seasons in 2003 and 2004, the benefits of the new stadium, and the best seasons in WU baseball history came about in 2005 and 2006. The teams of those seasons were both at-large caliber (though the ’05 team won the conference tournament anyway), each earning #2 seeds in the NCAA Regionals. The 2005 team won its opening game of its Regional, before falling in a pair of one-run games to get eliminated. And then the 2006 team won two games in the NCAAs before getting eliminated. At that point in time, with the stadium, with multiple draft picks seemingly every season (including two players picked in the 2nd round of the 2005 MLB draft), and with competitive showings in the Regionals, it seemed like only a matter of time before WU would possibly be in the running to host a Regional and/or advance to a Super-Regional and possibly more. At the same time, Coastal Carolina was on a similar trajectory (though they were a few years behind WU in updating their stadium), earning at-larges, winning 40-50 games in most years, having players picked in the early rounds of the draft, and knocking on the door of advancing further in the NCAAs. Coastal had been a bit more consistent in the early part of the 2000s than WU, but the two programs were at very similar points if you took a snapshot in 2005.
So what happened after that? Starting in 2007, Coastal made the NCAAs every year except for 2014, often earning #1 and #2 seeds, hosting Regionals at times, advancing to the Super Regionals (and hosting them) in 2010, and then going all the way in 2016, winning the National Championship. And in that same time period, starting in 2007, WU has not made the NCAAs once. I go over all of this history to show that the Winthrop program once proved to be at-large caliber, and that another program that was in a similar position 13 years ago proved that a team in the Big South can compete at the highest level of the sport. Do I expect WU to replicate what Coastal did? No…but I also don’t know what happened after 2006 to stall the progress of the program after it seemed like everything was moving in the right direction. After that last NCAA Tournament appearance, WU had 2nd place finishes in the Big South in 2007 and 2009, but neither team was close to being in range to earning an at-large and both came up just a bit short in the conference tournament. Then after a middle-of-the-pack, .500ish season in 2010, longtime WU coach Joe Hudak was fired (and it was a surprise to me…can’t speak for everyone else). Hudak was the coach for 19 seasons, and was at the helm for WU’s five NCAA Tournament teams…but based on what AD Tom Hickman said in the article I just linked, he felt like the program wasn’t progressing like he expected given the stadium (which got extra bells and whistles in 2008 to complete the renovations started at the start of the decade) and the success the program saw in the middle part of the decade.
Tom Riginos was hired in 2010, and the first few seasons were rough…the transition to the new coaching staff seemed to take a while to smooth out, as there seemed to be a good bit of roster instability for a few years, and team struggled on the field. The roster has stabilized quite a bit over the last 4-5 years, and the results in 2015 and 2017 were promising, as it appeared that program could be turning the corner to getting back to being a regular at/near the top of the standings in the Big South and possibly returning to the national picture. But the consistency hasn’t been there. The 2016 team was middle of the pack in the league and .500 overall, and this year’s team is under .500, and also middle of the pack. One noticeable difference between the teams of this decade and the teams of the 2000s decade is when you look at the MLB draft. In the 2000s, 14 WU players were selected in the draft, with 8 of those players being picked in the first 20 rounds. In the 2010s, 7 WU players have been selected, with the highest pick being in the 22nd round.
I’m not deep enough in the college baseball scene to know what (if any) things have really changed in the last 10-15 years that may be affecting Winthrop in the big scheme of things. Also, I don’t know what sort of budget or internal issues may be around the program that may make it more difficult to get back to the national rankings and the at-large picture. So I’m not in position to say that WU should be exactly where Coastal is, or should be in the NCAAs every season. But should there be as big of a gulf between the two programs as there is? I don’t see any reason why there should be. And with Coastal now out of the Big South (and with Liberty out after this year), the door is wide open for a new alpha dog to lead the league. Is Winthrop in position to be that team? Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the Eagles are at that point (though I hope I’m wrong).
So that’s a long winding road to say that I do sincerely hope that WU has a great tournament this week, and can hold up the trophy on Liberty’s field in the Flames’ last event in their Big South tenure. I’d like nothing more than to see Winthrop’s name back on the NCAA bracket after a long absence. But I also think that AD Ken Halpin may have to take a long look at the program once this tournament is over, no matter the result (if he hasn’t done so already). Eight years is plenty of time to determine if the right coach is in place (even though Halpin has only been around for the last two of those seasons)…and if WU leadership thinks it is time to make a change, I won’t be surprised, especially given the heights that the Winthrop baseball program has proven it can get to in the past.