UCLA took its first step toward becoming one of the nation's elite last season. But coach John Savage insists there is still work to do.
In Savage's second year, the Bruins went 33-25 and reached the NCAA Tournament. They competed in the Malibu Regional against UC Irvine, Pepperdine and Missouri.
Despite their inability to win the Regional, Savage was pleased with his young team's strides during the 2006 season.
He's using last year's success as a staging point for 2007.
"We were a young team last year and will be a young team this year. But I thought we made some significant strides by reaching the postseason in 2006," Savage, the third-year coach, said. "The first series of the year is always a feeling out process, but I'm looking forward to seeing how our guys compete against a solid team like Winthrop."
While the Bruins bring a more experienced team into the series, they realize how tough it is to beat the Eagles and ace right-hander Alex Wilson.
"Winthrop was a team that we knew would be around the top 25 when we scheduled them, so it's not a surprise to see them receive accolades," Savage said. "To win this series and beat a guy like Alex Wilson, we must be on our game."
Though Wilson is the headliner on the mound, the Bruins enter the weekend with senior right-hander Tyson Brummett spearheading the pitching staff.
Brummett made waves in his first season. The 6-foot-1, 170-pound veteran went 6-7 with a 4.52 ERA in 97 2/3 innings in 2006. He also struck out 83 and walked 32.
"Tyson (Brummett) is throwing the ball extremely well and we expect him to give us quality starts," Savage said. "Like the rest of our pitchers, he will be on a pitch limit this weekend. But overall, we like him as our staff ace."
The Bruins are also excited about freshmen pitchers Gavin Brooks and Charles Brewer.
Brooks and Brewer each had a stellar fall and January. But only Brooks is in the weekend rotation against Winthrop.
"We're excited about both of these guys, but hopefully Charles (Brewer) can recover from what we think might be mononucleosis or a severe case of the flu," Savage said. "We're disappointed to be without Brewer, but at some time or another, a team has to overcome adversity. This is our time to do that."
UCLA will start senior left-hander Paul Schmidt in his place.
As the Bruins move forward, Savage and the coaching staff remain optimistic about their chances this season.
It's just a matter of putting all the pieces together.
"I think we have the ability to do many things this spring," Savage said. "The offense is still young, but we have more speed and should be more productive at the plate. The pitching staff should also be in good shape with Brummett leading the way."
Winthrop riding high entering weekend
To become the best, you have to play the nation's top teams.
It's a philosophy that Winthrop coach Joe Hudak has lived by since taking the reins of the program 15 seasons ago. And you can't argue with the results.
"We do everything – including scheduling – in preparation for postseason play," Hudak said. "From the day I took the job, I've wanted to compete on a national level. To do so as a mid-major, you must schedule tough opponents."
The Eagles shocked the college baseball community last season when they won road series at Miami and Alabama. But even with their success against those teams, programs aren't shying away from the opportunity to play them.
"It's very important from a recruiting standpoint to play a tough schedule, so we try hard to do that annually," Hudak said. "While some teams in our own state refuse to play us, other programs such as UCLA, Baylor and Texas continue to pursue us."
With a four-game series at Rice (2008) and a three-game set at Southern California (2009), Winthrop's schedule will only get tougher. But don't expect any excuses from Hudak and the Eagles.
They're only doing what they do best – play tough teams.
As the Eagles enter this weekend's series against the Bruins, they have one of the nation's top arms – right-hander Alex Wilson.
Wilson blossomed as a freshman, winning 13 games with a 3.78 ERA in 138 innings. He also struck out 143 and walked 50, while opponents hit him at a .247 clip.
For Winthrop to win the series, Wilson must be on his game.
"The strength of our club is the pitching staff with Alex (Wilson) leading the charge," Hudak said. "Wilson has been everything we had hoped for and we're looking for an even better season from him in 2007."
Though questions still surround the offense, the pitching staff is a unit to watch this weekend in Westwood, Calif.