Life After Keon – WU Basketball Summer Update

After taking a few days to digest the loss to Butler and to soak in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, I began to write a detailed blog-post about the WU team heading into next season, and to determine just what this program will look like when Keon Johnson isn’t on the court anymore.  Then, as I was in the middle of writing the post, Pat Kelsey took the UMass jobthen came back to WU a couple of days later.  Around that same time, Duby Okeke and Patrick Fisher both transferred out of the program.  So I took some time away from looking forward to next season as half of the roster was up in the air, and I was still trying to digest the whole Kelsey/UMass story.  But things have settled down over the last couple of months.  Kelsey didn’t jump ship to another job as some people worried he might do.  And the program finished up signing its recruiting class in April & May.  So we now at least know the names of the people on the roster (even if there may be a lot of questions about how the pieces will fit together, and which of the new guys will be able to contribute right away).

As a quick recap, WU lost five scholarship seniors from this past season’s team.  Besides Keon Johnson, WU needed to replace Josh Davenport, Rod Perkins, Tevin Prescott, and Hunter Sadlon on the roster.  Keon is obviously the headliner, but Davenport, Perkins, and Prescott all played right around 20 minutes/game.  Sadlon’s value to the team was primarily in practices.  Also, as mentioned above, Duby Okeke and Patrick Fisher decided to transfer, with Okeke landing at Nebraska, and Fisher heading back home to play at San Diego State.  Okeke didn’t play huge minutes for WU, but his size/presence in the paint on the defensive end was big for the Eagles at times.  Fisher barely played in his freshman season due to illness.

Returning Players (Roles Already Defined):
This first group of players are the three guys expected to return who have been key parts of the rotation already, so we have a pretty good feel on what they can (or can’t) do…

-Xavier Cooks, senior – Most programs that lose a Keon Johnson-type of player would be panicking about who they will turn to for buckets the following season.  Luckily for WU, Cooks will be back for his senior season, and he was already a ‘1b’ to Keon’s ‘1a’ when it came to who was the primary weapon on the Eagles this past season.  Cooks is as versatile as it gets for a 6’8″ player, and his production on the boards had a decent uptick this past year to where he’s now a regular double-double machine, especially against Big South foes.  The offense runs through him at times anyway, and I’d expect that to increase a bit next season.  As long as he can stay on the court (avoiding injuries and foul trouble, personal and/or technical), he’ll put up numbers that will put him in the running for Big South Player of the Year.  The interesting scenario will come with end-game situations.  Keon Johnson was the focal point almost every time WU needed a bucket late in the game.  Will Cooks take over that role?  Or will that go to someone else (or be handled by committee)?

-Anders Broman, senior – I will admit, I was a little skeptical when Coach Kelsey brought Anders into the program after he had a couple of rather nondescript seasons at South Dakota State.  But after about a month of adjusting to being back on the court again, he was a key part to WU’s offense this past season, often hitting big buckets late in games to lift the Eagles to wins.  Obviously his biggest strength is his spot-up three point shooting, but he showed a few flashes of being able to get buckets off the dribble, something we may see a little more next season.  He’s not one of the better defenders on the roster, though, and that will keep him off the court at times, but we’ll likely see big minutes for him in his senior season, and he has a decent chance at being the team’s second leading scorer behind Cooks.

-Bjorn Broman, junior – In his first two seasons, Bjorn averaged 27.9 minutes/game.  That’s more than Keon Johnson averaged in his first two seasons, and more than Xavier Cooks.  In fact, from what I can tell, you have to go back to Chris Gaynor to find a WU player who averaged more minutes in their freshman/sophomore seasons.  That is to say, Coach Kelsey is comfortable with putting Bjorn on the court.  Bjorn’s biggest contributions in his first two seasons have been in handling the ball, taking some of the allowing Keon to conserve some energy at times, and in being a pretty solid perimeter defender.  His shooting numbers improved from his first year to his second, but there are many games in which he doesn’t take many shots, and oddly, he seems to shoot much better on the road than at home (after scoring double-figures in his first two home games of his freshman season, Bjorn has only scored in double-figures once in his last 30 home games…yet he has nine double-digit scoring games on the road in his career).  Expect they younger Broman to continue to get plenty of minutes, but it will be interesting to see if he becomes a bit more assertive, and more potent, on the offensive end this season with Keon gone.

Returning Players (Roles Expected to Expand in 2017-18):
These three returning scholarship players will likely play bigger roles on the team than they have in the past.

-Adam Pickett, junior – In two seasons, Pickett has been a feast or famine type of energy guy off the bench.  Some games, he’ll come in, make a few steals, get in transition, and make some impressive finishes around the basket.  In others, he’ll turn it over a couple of times, commit a couple of fouls, and never be seen again.  When he plays well, he’s a very dynamic weapon for the Eagles on both sides of the court.  He should get an opportunity to play more minutes this year, provided that he can limit the turnovers that lead to easy baskets on the other end.

-Josh Ferguson, sophomore – Ferguson had some nice moments as a freshman, especially early in the conference schedule when he got quite a bit of playing time off the bench.  He showed a pretty good shooting touch (especially from the free throw line) and looked willing and able to battle on the boards.  Like most young players, he hit a bit of a wall as the season went along, and WU relied more on the steady veteran presence of Tevin Prescott as the calendar turned to February and March.  But he should be able to bring some decent size and athleticism to WU’s front-court this year, and with Prescott and Okeke no longer around, he has every opportunity to earn plenty of playing time.

-Raivis Scerbinskis, freshman – Scerbinskis is essentially a newcomer, as he redshirted last season and has not played a minute of Division I basketball yet.  But the one advantage he holds over the group below is that he has spent a whole season practicing with the team, learning the system, and adjusting to life away from Latvia.  At 6’8″, he should be able to stretch the floor for the Eagles with his shooting ability, but it remains to be seen what else he’ll contribute to the team.

Newcomers:
This is one of the largest incoming classes in recent WU history, with seven new scholarship players joining the roster for the 2017-18 season.  If WU wants to return to the NCAAs, you’d have to think that at least a couple of these guys will need to be able to make an immediate impact.  I won’t pretend that I know much about any of them, or even begin to guess where they’ll fit into the rotation this season.

-Jermaine Ukaegbu, junior – Ukaegbu spent his freshman season at Sacred Heart, playing about 7 minutes a game before leaving to play his sophomore year at Indian Hills Community College (a JUCO power that essentially has an entire roster of players that will end up playing D1).  His offensive numbers won’t wow you, but he appears to have great athleticism, can rebound well, and should help fill some of the shot-blocking void left by Duby’s departure, even though he’s ‘only’ 6’6″.  (Ukaegbu’s YouTube Highlights)

-Nych Smith, junior – Like Ukaegbu, Smith also has spent his season at the D1 level (at Fordham), and then played last season at the JUCO level for Florida Southwestern State.  Smith’s a 5’10” point guard that has the ability to score (15 ppg last season) and pass (almost 6 apg last year).  Of all of the newcomers, I’d guess that he’ll be the most ready to contribute right away. (Smith’s YouTube Highlights)

-Austin Awad, junior – Awad is also coming to WU from the JUCO ranks, as he spent the last two years at Eastern Florida State.  At 6’6″, Awad brings some height to wing, and likely will be a shooter off the bench, as over 80% of his shot attempts last season were from three.  He averaged over 10 ppg and 5 rpg as a sophomore (after averaging 7 ppg and 5 ppg as a freshman), shooting around 37% from three in his two seasons at EFSC. (Awad’s YouTube Highlights)

 

-Keondre Schumacher, freshman – Coach Kelsey loves combo guards, and the 6’0″ Schumacher seems to fit the description, as he averaged over 17 ppg and 4 apg at University High School in Normal, IL.  From what I can tell, he has good shooting range and solid ball-handling skills.  (Schumacher’s YouTube Highlights)

-Tom Pupavac, freshman – After striking gold in Australia with Xavier Cooks, the WU coaching staff has brought in a couple of players from Down Under, the first being the 6’10” Pupavac.  He appears to have a good outside shot for a big guy, and it will be interesting to see how he’s able to battle down low at the Division I level. (Pupavac’s YouTube Highlights)

-Kyle Zunic, freshman – Zunic is the other new Australian on the roster, and is a 6’2″ combo guard with some experience at the international level, playing for Australia’s U17 National Team in the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship.  Coach Kelsey raved about his toughness in the school’s press release when he was signed. (Zunic’s YouTube Highlights)

-Charles Falden, freshman – Falden is a 6’3″ guard/wing who played high school ball at LC Bird HS in Chesterfield, VA, then spent last season at Massanutten Military Academy.  He averaged over 20 ppg (I’ve seen anywhere from 21-24 ppg depending on the source) at Massanutten, a team that is sending 4 players to D1 schools from their roster last year.  He also shot over 40% from three, both at Massanutten and as a senior in HS. (Falden’s YouTube Highlights)

Walk-Ons:
-Kellen Blake, senior
-Freddie Poole, senior
-Mitch Hill, senior
-Matt Erps, senior

WU has a veteran group of walk-ons to help run scout team and add practice depth.  It would be surprising to see any in this group get meaningful minutes this season.  Matt Erps is the only new walk-on on the roster, but he’s not new to the program, spending the last three seasons as a team manager.

Early Outlook:
It is way too early to have any idea on exactly how good this team will be in 2017-18.  With so many new names on the roster, it is hard to really know.  Having Xavier Cooks on the team should keep WU in the mix at the top of the Big South standings, as nobody in the league can really match up with him.  UNC Asheville and Liberty each return a good chunk of their rosters from last season, so don’t be surprised if they are picked as the favorites over WU in the preseason.  WU’s success will likely hinge on how well the newcomers fit into the mix.  The Eagles are currently on a trip to Australia, which should help jump-start some of the integration of the new guys into the system.  The good news is that most of the newcomers have faced some good competition in their past, as a couple have played at the Division I level already, and others have been at good programs at the Junior College level, the International level, and/or the prep-school level.  But there is always a learning curve that they will all have to overcome, and I expect to see some early struggles, especially on the defensive end.  It seems to take Kelsey’s teams a little while to mesh on defense, and while Cooks and Bjorn Broman should be good veteran presences on that end, there will surely be some missed assignments, miscommunication, and breakdowns defensively as the new guys get incorporated into the system.  As we get into the fall, we’ll hopefully know a little more about how this team will look, and I’ll take a deeper dive into what each team in the Big South will bring to the 2017-18 season.

 

Wrapping up 2016-17

In the college sports calendar, it is always a sad day when the final spring sport ends, as you know you’ll have to wait a couple of months for action on the field to get started again.  WU reached that point this past weekend…

Baseball
Constant rain postponed the start of the Big South Tournament by two days, and then created a very cramped schedule in order to get the tournament completed by Sunday.  WU came in as the top seed, and the Eagles were involved in a few exciting moments, but unfortunately the team was unable to claim a championship or get back the NCAAs.

WU opened up the tournament with a great start by Nate Pawelcyzk against Campbell (only 1 run allowed in 6 1/3 innings), but it took some late game dramatics for WU to win as Campbell scored two runs in the top of the 9th to tie the game and WU ended up winning on a walk-off single by Hunter Lipscomb in the 10th to give WU the 4-3 victory.  Lipscomb was huge throughout the game, going 4 for 6 with all 4 WU RBIs.  Unfortunately WU fell in their 2nd game to Radford, 7-1, which pushed the Eagles into the loser’s bracket and made the road to a championship much tougher.  Freshman Colton Rendon looked to be pitching really well early in the game, but the Highlanders scored 7 runs off of him in the 4th inning, and WU couldn’t get anything going against RU’s Danny Hrbek.

That pushed WU into an elimination game on Saturday vs. High Point, which was played at River Bluff High School (in order to give a clear TV window to ESPNU for a different game of the tournament).  Playing at a high school created a home run derby atmosphere, and the Eagles trailed 8-0 in the 4th inning and 13-7 in the 8th inning.  Somehow, WU was able to make a crazy comeback, scoring 6 runs in the 9th inning to win 14-13.  The teams combined for 13 home runs.

Saturday evening, WU headed back to Lexington County Stadium to face Presbyterian.  WU got a solid staff pitching performance, but the Eagles entered the bottom of the 9th inning trailing 3-1.  However, WU came through with another big comeback win, scoring 3 runs to beat the Blue Hose, 4-3.  WU then got to face the Blue Hose again on Sunday morning in a 7-inning elimination game to see who faced Radford in the finals (and I will continue to not understand why the tournament format includes 7-inning games, but that’s a rant for another day).  Rendon got the start on only a day’s rest (options were pretty limited at that point) and PC jumped on him for 5 runs in the first, and WU never recovered.  Presbyterian ended up winning 9-4 to eliminate the Eagles.

Track & Field
WU had three athletes compete at the NCAA East Preliminary Championships in Lexington, KY.  On Day 1, Alesha Love competed in the 400m hurdles, running a 1:02.21 in the first heat, which unfortunately did not qualify her for the quarterfinals.  Love ended up finishing in 44th out of the 48 at the meet.  Quemell Brave also competed on the first day in the long jump.  Brave jumped 7.08m in his first attempt, and was unable to improve on that mark in his final two jumps.  That distance ended up placing him in 33rd place, outside of the top 12 that got to advance to Eugene for the Finals.  Day 2 of the event concluded with the men’s 3000m steeplechase, which had Kevin Mills in the field.  Mills was in the final heat and ran a 9:14.11, which put him in 35th place.

 

 

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Talkin’ Baseball

Congratulations are in order as the Winthrop baseball team won 2 out of 3 games at Radford this past weekend, which gave the Eagles a 17-7 conference record and the regular season championship.  WU ended up finishing a game ahead of Liberty to clinch only the 4th regular season Big South championship for the program (1995, 2001, and 2003 were the other years that it happened…yes, the team did finished on top of the South Division in 2015, but 4 teams in the North had better records than WU did, so it is hard to make a claim for that season).  This is an important accomplishment for a program that has been mired in mediocrity for the past decade.  But if the team wants to make it to its first NCAA Tournament since 2006, then they have to win the Big South Tournament in Lexington, SC this week.

The conference tournament begins on Tuesday at Lexington County Stadium, and WU is the #1 seed, and will face #8 Campbell at 4:30pm in the Eagles’ first contest of the double-elimination tournament.  A win in that first game would advance WU to a winners-bracket game against either #4 High Point or #5 Radford at around 8:00pm on Wednesday night.  A loss would force WU into an elimination game around 1:00pm on Wednesday (against either HPU or RU).  As always, winning the early games gives you a huge advantage in winning the whole tournament.  Winning the first two games only then requires you to win 4 total games to win the title.  However, dropping one of the first two contests means you have to play 6 games (and win 5 of them) if you want to hold the trophy on Saturday and get to the NCAAs.

The key to Winthrop’s success in Big South play has been the outstanding starting pitching that WU has had during conference play.  WU led the conference (looking only at conference games) with a 2.80 staff ERA, and the starters (Reece Green, Nate Pawelczyk, and Colten Rendon) had a 2.58 ERA in conference games.  That’s not to take anything away from the WU offense, which led the league in batting average, but the Eagles’ greatest strength came from the mound, especially on the weekends.  That’s why it becomes very important for WU to try and win the early games of this tournament in order to not have to go too deep into the pitching staff.  In non-conference games this season, WU had a 5.65 ERA (4.74 if you take out the Citadel game that WU lost 34-8), and in mid-week contests, WU’s ERA was 6.87 (4.86 if you take out that Citadel game).

So can WU win the title this week?  There’s no reason they can’t.  Liberty has a solid team and should probably be considered the co-favorite along with Winthrop.  But in this type of tournament, you can’t be terribly surprised by much.  Again, WU’s best chance will be if WU can avoid getting into the loser’s bracket early so they don’t have to get too deep into the staff.  Weather could prove to be an issue though, especially early in the week, so who knows how that will impact each team, and how that could affect pitching rotations and possible rest times.  And an interesting subplot could emerge with WU pitcher Matt Crohan.  Crohan was named the Big South’s Preseason Pitcher of the Year, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch this season after having a set-back in his recovery from an arm injury that sidelined him last season after only three starts.  Head Coach Tom Riginos was hoping he’d be able to face live pitching a few weeks ago, but I haven’t seen any follow-up that has talked about his progress.  And even if he is cleared to pitch in game action, I wouldn’t expect it to be more than an inning here or there, but that’s something to keep an eye out for in Lexington.

Baseball scenarios & Track/Field accomplishments (plus other updates)

The 2016-17 athletic season is coming close to its end, with only a couple of sports still playing…here’s a look at where Baseball & Track and Field are at right now, along with a look at how the season ended for Women’s Tennis and Softball…

Baseball
The regular season for baseball finishes up this week, and WU still sits in first place in the Big South after a 2-1 series win over Campbell this past weekend.  The Eagles are now 15-6 in the conference, with Liberty and Presbyterian each a game behind at 14-7.  WU is locked in the top 3 at this point, with a weekend series at Radford closing things out (after a non-conference home game vs. Charlotte on Tuesday).  Presbyterian travels to Liberty this weekend, so here are the different seeding scenarios based on what happens in this final week of the regular season (keep in mind that WU swept Liberty in the regular season, but the Eagles got swept by Presbyterian):

-If WU sweeps Radford, WU will get the #1 seed.
-If WU wins 2 out of 3 vs. Radford, WU will be the #1 seed (unless PC also sweeps Liberty.  In that situation, WU would drop to the #2 seed).
-If WU wins 1 out of 3 vs. Radford, WU can only get the #1 seed if Liberty wins 2 out of 3 vs. Presbyterian…if the LU/PC series ends in any other way, than WU will be #2.
-If WU gets swept by the Highlanders, then WU cannot finish at #1.  WU would finish as the #2 seed, unless Liberty wins 2 out of 3 vs. PC…then in that case, WU would drop to #3.

Track & Field
The Big South Championship Meet took place late last week, and there were several impressive individual performances by the Eagles.  WU took home five individual championships, with Mike Hajduk (hammer throw), Kevin Mills (3000m steeplechase), and Alesha Love (400m hurdles).  Other Eagles that had top-3 finishes include Quemell Brave (2nd in long jump), Taryn DeLeon (2nd in heptathlon), Olivia Paxton (3rd in 10000m), Kevin Mackey (3rd in hammer throw), Love (3rd in 100m hurdles), and Hajduk (3rd in discus).  As a team, the WU men finished in 6th place (out of 7 teams), and the women finished in 6th place (out of 8 teams).

Now the focus for the Track & Field program is the NCAAs.  I believe the official release that names the athletes that qualified for the NCAA Preliminary meets will come out Thursday.  But it appears that Alesha Love (400m hurdles), Kevin Mills (3000m steeplechase), and Quemell Brave (long jump) are all in comfortable shape to be a part of the top 48 that qualify for the NCAA East Preliminaries which start on May 25 in Lexington, KY.

Women’s Tennis
WU made its 15th NCAA appearance on Friday, falling to Tennessee, 4-1.  While it was another first round loss for the Eagles, the most recent appearances in the NCAAs have been promisingly competitive.  This year, WU was able to showcase just how good Lauren Proctor is.  First, during the doubles competition, she teamed with Megan Kauffman to beat the #71 ranked doubles team in the country (Brittany Lindl & Eve Repic).  WU dropped the other two doubles matches, so the Vols were able to pick up the doubles point.  In singles play, Proctor beat Lindl (ranked #42 in the country in singles) in straight sets to give WU its point in the match.  WU freshman Alisa Soloveva was unable to finish her match at the #2 singles spot, but she did win the first set, and the final set was tied when the match ended.  With Proctor (only a sophomore) and Soloveva playing so well on this stage, that’s promising for the program going forward.  This was a very young team (Caitlin Cridland was the only senior on the roster, and there were no juniors), so if all or most of the underclassmen return next season, WU could have a good chance to have its best season in program history.

Softball
WU dropped its opener in the Big South tournament to Charleston Southern, creating a tough scenario of needing to win six straight games to win the championship.  The Eagles did a good job of bouncing back from that loss, winning three straight games, before falling to Liberty on Saturday evening to end the season.  Included in that three game streak were two shutouts (to eliminate Radford and CSU) and an impressive 13-5 win to eliminate #2 Campbell.

Spring Sports Update – May 9

Tennis
The Winthrop women found out their NCAA fate last week, as the Eagles will head to Durham, NC to face the Tennessee Volunteers on Friday, May 12 at 1:00pm.  This will obviously be a difficult task for the Eagles, but WU did catch a break in that they are not playing one of the 16 seeded teams in the field.  To follow along with the action on Friday, you can view the livestats, which will also have video feeds from all of the courts.  Good luck to the Eagles as they attempt to get their first ever NCAA Tournament victory.

Softball
The Big South Conference Tournament will begin on Wednesday, May 10 at Longwood.  WU earned the #5 seed in the 6-team/double-elimination tournament.  The Eagles’ first opponent will be #4 Charleston Southern at noon on Wednesday.  In the regular season, the Buccaneers won the series between the two teams, 2-1.  You can follow that game on livestats or on the Big South Network.  If the Eagles win, they’ll move on to face #1 Liberty on Thursday at noon.  However, a loss will send WU to an elimination game on Wednesday afternoon at 5pm, against the loser of the #3 Longwood/#6 Radford game.

Track & Field
Softball isn’t the only sport that has a Big South Championship being held this week.  Outdoor Track & Field will be at Charleston Southern starting on Wednesday, May 10 for the Big South Championship Meet.  WU still has three athletes that look to be in good shape to make the NCAA Preliminaries (Alesha Love, Quemell Brave, and Kevin Mills), and can possibly add more to the mix if anyone else has an outstanding performance at the conference meet.  The action can be followed online with these livestats.

Baseball
WU baseball came back from a long break with a mid-week loss to North Carolina A&T last week, but the Eagles bounced back with another good weekend performance, sweeping Gardner-Webb to remain in first place in the Big South with a 13-5 conference record.  WU takes on Wofford at home on May 9, and then Davidson at BB&T Ballpark on May 10, before hosting Campbell this weekend in a conference series.  After that, the Eagles only have a home game vs. Charlotte and a road series at Radford remaining on the regular season slate.  WU did clinch a spot in the conference tournament with this past weekend’s sweep, so WU will be in Lexington, SC starting on Tuesday, May 23 to attempt to get back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.

Lacrosse
WU’s lacrosse season came to an end this past week as the Eagles fell to Campbell, 11-9, in the Big South Tournament semifinals.  WU will hopefully have all-conference goalie Alaina Girani back in action next season after she missed this entire season due to injury.  The Eagles also return (barring any transfers) the top five scorers from this past season’s team, so the 2018 Winthrop team has the potential to be very strong in Coach Julika Blakenship’s second season.

Entering the Home Stretch

It’s May 1, and as Winthrop prepares to send out a new graduating class later this week, the spring sports have started to wind down, with a few already finished.  Here’s a quick look at where things stand…

Tennis
As mentioned in my last blog post, the women’s tennis team won its 19th Big South Tournament, and they’ll find out their NCAA opponent/destination on Tuesday, May 2.  The WU men were not as fortunate, falling in the semifinals to eventual champion Presbyterian…interesting note, that was the first Big South Championship in any sport for the Blue Hose.

Golf
Both WU golf teams ended up finishing in 5th place in their respective Big South Championship matches.  The biggest bright spot for either team was sophomore Chelsea Dantonio finishing in a tie for 7th place in the women’s tournament.

Lacrosse
WU closed out the regular season with five straight wins, finishing with a 5-2 Big South record, and a third place finish.  This past weekend, WU hosted #6 Radford in the quarterfinals of the Big South Tournament, and came away with a pretty easy 20-10 win over the Highlanders.  WU moves on to the semifinals, where they will face #2 Campbell on Friday, May 5 at High Point at 7pm.  HPU hosts Liberty in the other semifinal, with the two winners facing off on Sunday, May 7 at noon at High Point.  In the regular season, WU fell to Campbell 17-16, so it would appear that Friday’s semifinal could be a toss-up.  Also of note, Nicole Beatson, Katherine Judge, and Paige Jenkins were all named First-Team All-Conference, while Kristen Shriver landed a spot on the Second-Team.

Track & Field
WU will take part at Liberty’s Twilight Qualifier meet this Wednesday (May 3) as the final tune-up prior to the Big South Championship meet, which takes place May 10-12 at Charleston Southern.  On an individual level, WU still has a few athletes in good position to qualify for the NCAA Championships-East Preliminary Meet.  Alesha Love has the 13th best mark in the region in the 400m hurdles, Kevin Mills is 24th in the 3000m steeplechase, and Quemell Brave sits in 40th in the long jump.  These athletes need to be in the top 48 of the region to move on to the NCAAs.  Hopefully they can cement their spots in the next two weeks, and possibly be joined by other athletes who are capable of qualifying, either at Liberty or at the Big South Championship meet.

Softball
The final week of the regular season is upon us, and WU heads to Radford this weekend for the final conference series of the season.  WU sits in 4th place in the league with a 8-10 Big South record.  Liberty, Campbell, and Longwood have locked up the top 3 spots already, and WU only needs to win 1 of the 3 games this weekend to clinch a spot in the 6-team conference tournament.  However, if WU gets swept by the Highlanders, then the only way WU can qualify for the tournament is to have Charleston Southern get swept by Campbell this weekend.  The tournament this season is hosted by Longwood, and will begin on May 10.

Baseball
Due to a break for exams, along with a canceled game vs. Davidson last week, it has been a very long lay-off for the Eagles.  WU will end its 10-day break from game action (weather permitting) with a home non-conference game vs. NC A&T on Wednesday, before hosting Gardner-Webb in a series this weekend.  WU is 10-5 in Big South play, currently joined by Liberty (12-6) and Presbyterian (11-7) as the only teams above .500 in league play right now.  The Herald had a nice write-up about the team’s pitching staff, which mentions that Matt Crohan may still be able to pitch later this season, but who knows what his role may be if he is able to return after his injuries.

Women’s Basketball
In case you missed it, Bret McCormick of the Herald wrote a pretty informative article regarding the events that led to Coach Cook’s suspension and subsequent dismissal as head coach of the women’s basketball team.  If you haven’t had a chance to read it, please do.

Men’s Basketball
The WU basketball roster is experiencing a pretty big overhaul following a season that saw five seniors (Keon Johnson, Josh Davenport, Tevin Prescott, Rod Perkins, & Hunter Sadlon) finish their eligibility, and a couple of more players (Duby Okeke, who has landed at Nebraska, & Patrick Fisher) opt to transfer out of the program.  Those seven spots may be finally filled though, as the early signees (Keondre Schumacher & Austin Awad) have been joined by spring signees Tom Pupavac, Kyle Zunic, Jermaine Ukaegku, and Charles Falden.  The final spot appears to be filled by Nych Smith, though I am still waiting for official word that he has signed.  Once the recruiting class is locked up, look for a more detailed blog post that takes a look at what next season’s WU team should look like (assuming nothing else changes on the roster).

Death, Taxes, and WU Women’s Tennis

I admit that I don’t give Winthrop Women’s Tennis enough attention, and I’m not alone.  It’s not a sport that is terribly visible on campus, their matches are often in the afternoons when people are in class, and heck, even the Big South didn’t have livestats or any sort of way to follow the conference tournament this past week.  But even if it isn’t easy to follow the day-to-day action of the program, I had to take a moment to acknowledge just how amazingly great (and consistently great at that) they have been.

This past weekend, Coach Cid Carvalho and the WU women’s tennis program won yet another Big South Tournament.  That makes 19 tournament championships for the WU program, in a sport that has only crowned 31 champions in the league’s history.  Also, WU did not win any of the first 7 tournaments, so the Eagles have won their 19 championships in the last 24 seasons, including 9 of the last 10, and 14 of the last 16.  All of these titles have been won under Coach Cid’s leadership, and he continues to amaze me in the way he can keep reloading his roster year after year to maintain the program’s status at the top of the Big South.

Gregg Marshall had amazing success in Winthrop’s highest profile sport in his nine years at WU.  Rich Posipanko with men’s soccer, Ben Paxton with the cross country/track & field programs, Joe Hudak with baseball, and Mark Cooke with softball all built strong programs over long tenures, with each reaching the top of the league at times.  And Joel McCartney in volleyball and John Sung in lacrosse each spent a short time in Rock Hill, but both were able to come in and dominate at the Big South level in their brief stays at WU.  But Coach Cid’s longevity and consistent success is unequaled at Winthrop, especially when you consider that he also coached the men’s team up until a few years ago (and won 5 titles with the men while he was leading them).

This year’s team is built like so many of the past teams that WU has had on the court.  It’s a perfect blend of returning talent and newcomers, who have stepped right in to fill the spots on the roster left by the talented players that graduated the year before.  Sophomore Lauren Proctor is dominant at the #1 position, and she’s part of a core of returnees that also includes sophomore Megan Kauffman at the #4 position and the only upper-classman, senior Caitlin Cridland at the #3 position.  But the team also relies heavily on its new players, with freshmen Alisa Soloveva (#2) and Alya Mourad (#6) joined by sophomore transfer Aida Kelic (#5).  And as always, the roster proves that Coach Cid is willing (and successfully able) to find talent anywhere in the world to bring to Rock Hill.  Proctor is from Florida, Cridland and Kauffman are from Australia, Soloveva is from Russia, Mourad is from Qatar, and Kelic is from Bosnia-Herzegovina.  And even beyond the primary rotation of players, you’ll see that Sweden, Peru, and India are also represented on the roster.  Coach Cid’s ability to blend these players from such a variety of backgrounds is a key part to his sustained success.

So what next?  WU will find out its NCAA fate on Tuesday, May 2nd at 5:30 when the bracket is revealed.  Will this be the team that finally breaks through with an NCAA win?  That will depend a lot on the draw that they get.  Unfortunately, the team is almost always tasked with having to play one of the top teams in the southeast, which is why you see an 0-14 record in the NCAAs for the program (the first four conference championship teams did not get an NCAA bid).  However, the program has made progress in recent seasons after the first 12 tournament teams fell by 4-0 scores.  The 2014 squad finally broke through to win a singles match as Ekin Gunaysu beat her opponent from Auburn, with WU losing the match 4-1.  And then last season, Proctor won her match, as well as Mariana Humberg, as WU fell to South Carolina, 4-2.  No matter the opponent, getting that elusive NCAA victory will be difficult, but it no longer appears that the Eagles are overwhelmed in that setting.  Having an elite player like Proctor helps set the tone for the program, and if they can manage to win the doubles point, it could help lead to a historic moment for Coach Cid and his team.