TAMPA — By his second relief inning in last year's season opener, USF right-hander Ryan Valdes had lost the fizz on his fastball.
A pitch that flirted with 90 mph had decelerated into the mid 80s, and the Alonso High alumnus didn't know why. He gutted his way through the night, allowing four runs on six hits in an 11-10 win against Liberty, but at a nearby Applebee's later that evening, Valdes couldn't squeeze the ketchup bottle....
USF SS Kevin Merrell and DH Luke Borders, the Bulls' two leading hitters, are first-team picks on the All-American Athletic Conference team selected by league coaches.
Three Bulls -- OF Duke Stunkel Jr., and right-handed pitchers Phoenix Sanders and Peter Strzelecki, made the second team. USF (40-15), the No. 4 seed in this week's conference tournament in Clearwater, was shut out of the individual awards.
Merrell, widely projected to be taken in the early rounds of next month's Major League Baseball Draft, enters Tuesday's tournament opener against Tulane hitting .387 with six home runs and 25 RBIs. He leads USF in average, stolen bases (18), on-base percentage (.468) and triples (four), and is tied with Borders for the lead in hits (74).
Borders (.344) has seven home runs and leads the team in runs (44) and RBIs (50). His run and RBI totals rank fifth and third in the league, respectively.
Stunkel (.343, team-best 14 doubles) hasn't committed an error this season. Strzelecki (3-3, 2.48 ERA), recorded the team's two longest outings this season, including a complete game in a 2-0 win at Connecticut two weekends ago. Sanders, Tuesday's starter, (5-2, 2.83), is tied for the team lead with 99 strikeouts.
The entire list of conference winners, along with the first and second teams, can be found here....
The initial wave of college football preview magazines has crashed upon newsstands, spraying hype all over USF.
But the adoration is accompanied by some snark.
All three publications -- Athlon Sports, Lindy's and Street & Smith's -- have the Bulls ranked in their respective preseason top 25, and all project USF to win the American Athletic Conference. All three pick the Bulls to play in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day.
But beneath the glossy covers lies plenty for Bulls fans to get steamed about also.
In Athlon's breakdown of the Bulls, senior QB Quinton Flowers -- a potential Heisman Trophy candidate this fall -- is referred to as "a poor man's Lamar Jackson," referring to the '16 Heisman winner from Louisville.
The reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year (4,342 total yards, 42 TDs), Flowers is deemed a "dark horse" Heisman candidate among the nation's quarterbacks by Street & Smith's, and is listed among "others to watch" in the Heisman race by Athlon.
Lindy's doesn't list Flowers among its top 10 Heisman candidates.
Additionally, Athlon highlights this quote -- from an "opposing AAC assistant coach" -- about the Bulls:
"They have real athletes in that program, and they can get them , but the school has to step up and look at UCF's level of commitment."
As all-conference recognition goes, the Bulls are well represented. Street & Smith's has Flowers and TE Mitchell Wilcox on its preseason All-AAC team; Athlon has five Bulls on its first team: Flowers, LB Auggie Sanchez, CB Deatrick Nichols, DT Deadrin Senat and PR D'Ernest Johnson....
USF entered Saturday's game against UCF with a shot at its first regular season conference title in 21 years, but exited it as the fourth seed in next week's American Athletic Conference tournament.
The Bulls' 3-2 loss, combined with Houston's 7-6 victory against Cincinnati, gave the Knights (38-18, 15-9) a share of the regular season crown and sent the No. 25 Bulls (40-15, 14-10) spiraling in the seedings....
UCF collected 17 hits off four USF pitchers Friday night en route to a 9-1 rout of the No. 25 Bulls, setting up an intriguing final day of the American Athletic Conference regular season.
In all possible scenarios except one, the Bulls (40-14, 14-9) still can win the AAC regular season title -- and top seed in next week's conference tournament in Clearwater -- with a victory Saturday in Orlando.
The lone exception: the Bulls and Connecticut (31-22, 14-9) finishing in a tie for first. In that case, UConn gets the regular season title and No. 1 tournament seed by virtue of a series win against USF last weekend. The Huskies host East Carolina on Saturday.
"I just told the guys they scored nine runs tonight, and none of those get to carry over to tomorrow," said Bulls coach Mark Kingston, whose program never has won twice in the same season at UCF....
During four sleep-deprived weeks of recruiting and evaluating, new USF men's coach Brian Gregory somehow landed nine recruits and one house.
At this stage, he's far more familiar with the specs and dimensions of his new guys than his new digs.
"The (west Tampa) house we're moving into next week, I've been to once," Gregory acknowledged Thursday. "My wife did all that."
In stunningly short order, Gregory and his staff managed to replenish a roster reduced to four scholarship players in the wake of a dreadful 2016-17 season resulting in the early-January dismissal of Coach Orlando Antigua.
The incoming class (listed here) comprises six players (three freshmen, three transfers), not counting three graduate transfers whom Gregory's still not at liberty to discuss. All except two are expected to be eligible for the 2017-18 season.
Gregory described it as four frenetic weeks of traveling, evaluating, phoning and caffeinating.
"It was non-stop. I mean, it was all day and all night on the phone," the native Chicago North Sider (and Cubs fan) said.
"There were times in there where we could get out, so now we're flying, driving, going to see as many of these kids as we could. ... So if we weren't on the phone or in the gym or watching film, then we were in the staff room going down our list and trying to put the guys in order in terms of priority list.
"The thing I'm comfortable with, in each one of those areas, those kids were our top priorities. So I feel good about that."
Though reticent to single out any signee, Gregory acknowledged being more than a little surprised at some of the players the Bulls were able to acquire. Seven-foot-2 Serbian Nikola Scekic, who played briefly at New Mexico, was fresh off a national title season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
And Gregory -- a former longtime Michigan State staffer -- distinctly remembers a conversation with veteran Spartans assistant Dwayne Stephens about Bulls incoming freshman Alexis Yetna.
He said, 'That kid's a junkyard dog, man, he's like a Michigan State player,'" Gregory recalled.
"So when you add all those things up, yeah, you can get involved in guys, but to finish the job like that, that's where the staff just did an unbelievable job."...
TAMPA — As its fourth full year of existence winds down, the American Athletic Conference — home to USF — finds itself not necessarily at a crossroads but a pit stop.
Tenaciously, commissioner Mike Aresco has poured in the fuel: a blend of sound bites and strategic plans. He has put a hashtag on the hood. He even beefed up the figurative suspension (adding Wichita State). ...
Before taking a dig or two at USF during his booster-tour stop Tuesday at Whiskey Joe's on Rocky Point, UCF second-year coach Scott Frost obliged us with a quick interview. Here are some excerpts:
In general, how did your spring go?
"It went well. This whole thing's going to be a process. I think we're a lot better team coming out of spring than we were last year. I think we'll be better at almost every position on the football field next year, and a lot of that's just from experience. Our guys, instead of having to learn the names of plays and where to go, we spent more time teaching the details and the technique."
You had some close losses last year (three by a touchdown or less). Do you feel you're a team on the cusp?
"I think we could be, but I also think the league's gonna be winnable but really competitive this year. Look at our schedule, I don't think there's very many games where we're going into the game thinking we're definitely gonna win this, but I don't think there's any games on the schedule where we're gonna go in thinking we probably can't win this. I think we're gonna be very competitive. I think the league's gonna be wide open and I think every game's gonna be a battle."...
Only five days remain in the regular season, but a logjam remains atop the American Athletic Conference standings.
Logjam? Who are we kiddding? It's a mess. More than a mess, a paradox: The end is in sight, but a lot of baseball remains, if you catch our drift.
Scenarios abound, and USF -- seeking the program's first conference title in 21 years -- finds itself smack in the middle of most of them. Because we couldn't locate a calculus professor to help break it all down, we turned to somebody who looks a little like one: USF baseball radio voice Mike Lefko (We kid).
With Lefko's assistance, we've determined the most plausible scenarios. Here goes:
* The Bulls and UCF have matching 13-8 conference records entering their three-game series in Orlando starting Thursday. If Houston drops two of three at home against Cincinnati and UConn loses its series to Memphis, the Bulls or the Knights win the regular season title.
* If USF and Houston finish tied, the Bulls win the conference title by virtue of winning two of three against the Cougars earlier this month.
* If USF and UConn finish tied, the Huskies win the conference by virtue of taking two of three from the Bulls last weekend.
* A three-way deadlock among the Bulls, Connecticut and Houston would force a tie-breaker formula: series record against the fourth-place team. If that fourth-place team is Tulane, that would eliminate USF, which dropped two of three in New Orleans earlier in the season (Houston took two of three from the Green Wave).
* In terms of conference tournament seeding, USF could head to Clearwater as high as the No. 1 seed or as low as the fifth. It's that congested at the top (check out the standings below).
American Athletic Conference standings
(Overall records in parentheses)
USF 13-8 (39-12)
UCF 13-8 (36-16)
Houston 13-8 (33-18)
UConn 12-9 (29-21)
Tulane 11-10 (24-28)
Cincinnati 9-12 (27-25)
Memphis 7-14 (27-25)
East Carolina 6-15 (27-25)...
The American Athletic Conference has extended the contract of Mike Aresco, the 4-year-old league's only commissioner, through June 2022.
Widely considered the nation's premier Group of Five conference, Aresco has unabashedly campaigned for The American to join the Power Five stratosphere, making that objective the cornerstone of the league's ambitious strategic plan. A hashtag (#AmericanPow6r) even has been unleashed.
“Mike is a strong commissioner who is respected by the presidents and institutions within the conference," Connecticut president Susan Herbst, chair of the AAC board of directors, said in a statement. "It is important for The American to have excellent, consistent leadership and that is what Mike provides.”
The last commissioner of the old Big East, Aresco remained on board when that conference legally transitioned to the AAC.
During his watch, the league has added Navy in football, Wichita State in basketball, and three other schools (East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa) in all sports. He also implemented an AAC football title game, and was instrumental in securing a New Year's bowl berth for the highest-ranked team in the Group of Five.
On his watch, the AAC has produced a Fiesta Bowl champion (UCF), Peach Bowl winner (Houston) and men's hoops national champ (UConn). Meantime, the UConn women won national titles the first three years of the conference's existence.
"I am extremely proud of the progress that this conference has made," Aresco said.
"Our presidents and athletic directors have made the commitment necessary for us to become a Power Six conference and have, in a difficult environment, provided the vision and resources that have enabled our student-athletes and coaches to compete at the highest level."...
Suddenly, the USF baseball team's most inspirational player has become its most dominant one.
Since his father's funeral two Sunday ago, right-hander Peter Strzelecki has posted the Bulls' two best starting pitching efforts of 2017. The latest occurred Saturday in Storrs, Conn., where the junior recorded the team's first nine-inning complete game in nearly 14 months in a 2-0 victory against Connecticut.
"Pete had pinpoint control with all his pitches today," Bulls coach Mark Kingston said.
"Fastball was 89-90 (mph), and his slider and changeup really kept them off balance. He keeps getting better and better as the year goes on."...
They will spend the final stretch of the season on the road, and on the bubble.
No, not that bubble. The No. 23 Bulls baseball team (38-10) appears a lock for its second NCAA Tournament berth in three seasons. Only an epic collapse the rest of May would prevent that.
The bubble of which we speak involves earning one of the tournament's 16 regional host sites.
An iffy prospect, but a prospect nonetheless. USF, which enters today's doubleheader at Connecticut atop the American Athletic Conference standings with a 12-6 mark, has a chance.
"At the end of the day, if USF wins either the regular season or conference tournament championship for the American (Athletic Conference), then unless some of the other teams they're competing against just kind of go crazy, I think they would be a host," ESPN college baseball analyst Mike Rooney said.
"I think if they don't win either of those two championships, I think they will not host."
In the latest round of national tourney projections, none -- not even the one Rooney compiles for Perfect Game -- tabs USF as a regional host. Baseball America projects the Bulls to play in a regional in Winston-Salem, N.C. d1baseball.com has USF playing as the No. 2 seed in the Gainesville Regional.
That would be the same Gainesville where USF held on for a 15-10 victory Tuesday at No. 5 Florida -- a win Rooney think resonates. There's also that February win at FSU, and a pair of sweeps in conference play.
"My gut (feeling) is that the win over Florida is really loud because of how Florida's been playing lately," Rooney said.
But some metrics indicate the Bulls are only on the fringe of host consideration. While their RPI currently stands at a solid 18; their schedule strength is ranked 131st according to boydsworld.com....
TAMPA — For more than two decades, Les Miller has ached for a resuscitation of the Florida Classic in Tampa.
Though a USF alumnus, the Hillsborough County commissioner annually attended those late-autumn football clashes between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. The fierce alumni pride, the choreographic dazzle of the marching bands, the smell of smoked meats wafting through the parking lots — all remained palpable in his memory....
TAMPA — At this stage, she might be the only healthy person on the USF softball roster. To be sure, she's the most consistent. Seemingly every day, home or on the road, team trainer Allie Palmer delivers.
It's what she delivers — rehab update one day, injury report the next — that has veteran coach Ken Eriksen avoiding Palmer like strep throat.
"She thinks I hate her," he says....
USF boasted more sparkling across-the-board Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores when the NCAA released its latest data Wednesday.
All 18 Bulls sports programs posted multi-year APR scores of 952 or better, well above the minimum (930) required to avoid NCAA sanctions including postseason bans. While the men's basketball program's APR for 2015-16 was alarming (898), its multi-year score remained solid (959).
"USF student-athletes continue to achieve in the classroom," athletic director Mark Harlan said in a school news release.
"We are pleased with our latest APR scores and the continued work of our fantastic academic services staff and coaches in fulfilling our commitment to the total student-athlete experience."
The football team's 990 score for 2015-16 was a program record, while its 965 multi-year score tied with Memphis for seventh-best in the American Athletic Conference. The men's hoops team's multi-year score also ranks seventh in the league.
Elsewhere, the Bulls baseball and women's soccer teams boasted program-record multi-year scores of 972 and 990, respectively.
Seven teams, including women's basketball and men's golf, had perfect 1,000 scores for 2015-16. The others were all women's sports (cross country, volleyball, golf, tennis, track and field)....