USF sophomore Chris Chatfield's three-run home run helped propel the Bulls past Tulane, 7-6, in Tuesday's opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament.
With Tulane runners on first and second and two out in the top of the ninth inning Tuesday, USF's dugout watched as burly American Athletic Conference co-Player of the Year Hunter Williams' fly to left went deep.
Just not quite as deep as the Bulls' collective exhale, when left fielder Duke Stunkel Jr. snagged the ball to secure his team's 7-6 victory in opening round of the conference tournament at Spectrum Field.
Rallying twice from three-run deficits, the No. 4-seeded Bulls (41-15) got home runs from Spoto High alumnus Chris Chatfield and sophomore third baseman David Villar, and an ensemble effort from four pitchers to advance to Thursday's 7 p.m. winners' bracket game.
USF will face the winner of Tuesday's late contest between East Carolina and UCF.
"At the end of the day," USF coach Mark Kingston said, "we just got one more big hit."
USF trailed 3-0 with two out in the fourth when Chatfield sent a low Corey Merrill fastball over the center field fence, well beyond the 400-foot marker. It was Chatfield's sixth homer of the year, but first since April 28.
"I thought that sparked us," Kingston said. "It kind of gave us a little confidence that we could potentially get to (Merrill)."
Tulane re-gained the lead in the fifth on senior Jarret DeHart's three-run homer -- his 13th of the season -- off Bulls reliever Mark Savarese, who had replaced starter Phoenix Sanders (4 IP, 5 H, 3 R) an inning earlier.
But USF, which rallied to win 16 times in the regular season when trailing after six innings, again clawed back.
Villar's two-out solo blast in the fifth made it 6-4, and his two-out RBI-single in the sixth made it a one-run game. In the bottom of the eighth, SS Kevin Merrell led off with a single and tied the score when Stunkel followed with a double.
Stunkel scored the go-ahead run when Joe Genord's sharp grounder to third was misplayed by senior Hunter Hope.
“I think it was just stringing our hits together," said Stunkel, whose team totaled 10 hits. "Throughout the game, we were getting some hits. ... We were just stringing them together when it mattered, which is huge because we weren't able to do that early on."
USF shortstop Kevin Merrell is one of two Bulls named to the coaches All-American Athletic Conference first team.
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.
Street & Smith's 2017 college football preview heralds USF and quarterback Quinton Flowers as the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference.
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. …
In a span of roughly four weeks, new USF men's basketball coach Brian Gregory and his staff replenished their decimated roster.
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."
USF right-hander Phoenix Sanders and the Bulls head to UCF later this week tied atop the American Athletic Conference standings.
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)
Mike Aresco, the only commissioner in the American Athletic Conference's brief history, will stay on board through June 2022.
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."
USF right-hander Peter Strzelecki tossed the Bulls' first nine-inning complete game in 14 months Saturday at Connecticut.
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."
Strzelecki's effort came a day after the Bulls (39-12, 13-8) dropped both games of a double header against UConn (28-21, 12-9). In a best-case scenario, USF will exit the weekend with a one-game lead in the American Athletic Conference standings. At worst, it will be a game out of first.
Here are Strzelecki's totals in his last two starts: IP-17.1 Hits-5 Earned runs-1 Walks-2 Strikeouts-18 ERA-0.49
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). …
As sure as Quinton Flowers improvises, the slew of preseason magazines also will place USF atop the Group of Five summit. At this point, the Bulls simply appear too well-stocked and too well-coached not to flourish this fall. And their schedule shapes up ideally.
But a host of formidable peers won't take that summer reading sitting down; hence the reason they play the games.
Here are the other Group of Five teams -- in alphabetical order -- expected challenge USF for that coveted New Year's bowl berth. Teams' 2016 records are listed in parentheses.
Boise State (10-3) Conference: Mountain West Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Prolific QB Brett Rypien (nearly 3,700 yards last season) enters his third year as a starter, the non-conference schedule is favorable (except for an early-season trip to Washington State), and no one in the MWC replenishes like the Broncos. Boise State has signed the league's top-ranked recruiting class each of the last five years. Why they won't contend: Six of the seven top tacklers from 2016 are gone, and 1,700-yard rusher Jeremy McNichols -- who took a ton of pressure off Rypien -- now is employed by the Bucs. And let's face it, parity has prevailed in this league (see San Diego State, Wyoming) in recent years.
Houston (9-4) Conference: American Athletic Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Because there's simply too much talent for the Cougars not to make a run. Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen replaces dual-threat extraordinaire Greg Ward Jr., and the offensive line returns all five starters. DT Ed Oliver is arguably the conference's best defensive player. Why they won't contend: They're bound to stumble at least once in the highly competitive AAC West, and the road to a conference title literally runs through Tampa (Nov. 4 vs. USF at Raymond James Stadium). Non-conference games at Arizona and at home vs. Texas Tech also loom.
San Diego State (11-3) Conference: Mountain West Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: The Aztecs, seeking their third consecutive MWC title, understand the prerequisites for success. The defense, which finished 11th nationally last season, remains stout, especially at the second and third levels. While Donnel Pumphrey -- the NCAA's No. 4 alltime rusher -- has departed, RB Rashaad Penny (1,018 rushing yards) remains to spearhead one of the country's most potent running games. Why they won't contend: The offensive line, which allowed 28 sacks last season, must be overhauled again, and the early-season scheduled (at Arizona State and Air Force, home vs. Stanford) is brutal.
Toledo (9-4) Conference: Mid-American (MAC) Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Most of the key components of the MAC's best offense (517.8 ypg) return, including QB Logan Woodside, who led the country with 45 TD passes last fall. Two of his returning targets, Cody Thompson and Jon'Vea Johnson, combined for 104 receptions in '16. Why they won't contend: All-time leading rusher Kareem Hunt now plays for the Chiefs, and the schedule features some tricky potholes (Tulsa, Western Michigan).
Western Kentucky (11-3) Conference: Conference USA Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Onetime USF starter Mike White returns after a dazzling junior season (4,363 yards, 37 TDs), and the Hilltoppers' toughest non-conference games are at Illinois (Sept. 9) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 4). And presumably, some momentum from that 51-31 Boca Raton Bowl embarrassment of Memphis will carry over. Why they won't contend: Former coach Jeff Brohm bolted for Purdue in early December (Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford replaced him), and White is among only four returning offensive starters.
Wyoming (8-6) Conference: Mountain West Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Continuity. Reigning MWC Coach of the Year Craig Bohl, who orchestrated one of the nation's top turnarounds (from 2-10 to 8-6) last season, is back for a fourth year. So too, is most of his defense including the entire secondary. Offensively, junior QB Josh Allen (28 TD passes in '16) and four offensive linemen also return. Why they won't contend: Some critical offensive skill spots must be replenished, and the schedule is a bear (at Iowa, at Boise State, home vs. Oregon)
Tommy Eveld, a former closer for the USF baseball team, proposed to former softball ace Erica Nunn prior to Eveld's minor league game Monday in Illinois.
The idea was hatched in a hot tub, of all places.
Tommy Eveld and his brothers, Wesley and Bobby, were taking a soak together at their Lutz house last fall, floating ideas of how Tommy could propose to longtime girlfriend Erica Nunn.
Theirs had been a relationship borne of compatibility, trust and velocity. Tommy, a former Bulls football walk-on, had successfully transitioned to baseball and evolved into a hard-throwing bullpen option by 2016. That same spring, Erica was named American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year with the Bulls softball team.
Talk about your arm in arm.
But as he brainstormed with his brothers, Tommy -- who recently had completed his initial season in the Arizona Diamondbacks system -- struggled for a change-up. He needed a marriage proposal that would keep his girlfriend of nearly five years off-balance.
"Wesley was like, 'It would be awesome if you asked the team if she could throw out the first pitch and set it all up like that,'" recalled Tommy, still uncertain of where he'd be assigned for the 2017 season. "I was like, 'Yeah, maybe, I don't know. It just kind of depends on where I am and if I'm throwing well or not.'"
He landed at Kane County, the Diamondbacks' Class-A affiliate in Geneva, Ill., about an hour west of Chicago. After some contemplation, he ran his idea by team officials.
Let Erica throw the ceremonial first pitch with Tommy catching, followed by Tommy -- a former Jesuit High quarterback -- taking the most nerve-wracking knee of his life.
"They were all excited, happy and thrilled," Tommy said.
They scheduled it for May 8, a day after Erica was set to graduate with her masters degree in analytics from North Carolina State. After getting her diploma, she had planned to head west to see Tommy pitch professionally for the first time.
Meantime, Tommy had ordered her a Rawlings glove similar to his, with "Erica Eveld" inscribed on the thumb. Additionally, Rawlings had sent him an American Athletic Conference baseball cut in half, to serve as the ring holder.
"I thought that was pretty convenient, that it was a ball from the conference that we both pitched in," he said.
All seemed smooth until Saturday, when a minor league player in another league pulled off the exact same marriage proposal.
"I was thinking she'd see it on Twitter or Instagram," Tommy said. "And then when I asked her to throw the first pitch, then it would've been a big tipoff."
Erica never saw it. Plan preserved. Shortly before Kane County's game Monday against the Great Lakes Loons, Tommy told Erica the person slated to toss out the first pitch hadn't shown up, so he had volunteered her.
"I was extremely nervous to throw out the first pitch," Erica said. "I was just thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is my first game seeing him actually throw as a professional baseball player. This is a lot of pressure.' That was really all I was thinking about."
As dusk -- accompanied by a mild Midwest chill -- arrived at Northwestern Medicine Field, Erica took her place in front of the pitcher's mound as Crosby, Stills & Nash's Southern Cross played over the p.a. system.
Tommy caught the pitch, nonchalantly walked toward Erica, handed her the specially-ordered glove and got down on a knee. Nearly five years after their first date, at a Japanese steak house in Carrollwood, he put a diamond ring on Erica's finger. Video of the moment can be seen here.
Erica put her hand over her mouth in disbelief. Utter surprise. But no sobs.
"I'm not a crier," she said.
"I had a bunch of buddies on the team asking me, 'Did she cry?'" Tommy said. "I was like, 'No, she's a tough girl.'"
Two and a half hours later, as the weather segued from crisp to downright cold, Tommy worked a scoreless ninth for his sixth save.
The next part of the plan has yet to be hatched. The couple hasn't set a wedding date, but is fairly sure it will be some time in 2018, during Tommy's offseason.
And the package deal will be completed: starter and closer.
"We have a lot in common," Tommy said. "It's mostly like, our morals line up, our beliefs line up. And then we just get along really well."
Strzelecki allowed one earned run on three hits, and struck out a career-best 10 in Sunday's 6-3 victory, giving the Bulls (37-10, 12-6) sole possession of first place in the conference. He retired 18 of 19 at one point in the longest outing by a USF starting pitcher this season.
As a result of the sweep, USF moved up one spot -- to No. 23 -- in the latest Baseball America top 25. The Bulls' sweep of ECU was its second against a conference foe this season, marking the first time since 2013 it has achieved two league sweeps in the same year.
South Florida Bulls fans, you've come to the right place: the USF Sports Bulletin blog. Tampa Bay Times sportswriter Joey Knight, who covers USF, will post news and thoughts on the Bulletin, and we invite your participation in the comments area. Follow the Times' coverage of USF athletics on Twitter.