Baseball: Bulls embark on critical closing stretch

USF sophomore RHP Jimmy Herget gets starts tonight against 12th-ranked Houston.


USF sophomore RHP Jimmy Herget gets starts tonight against 12th-ranked Houston.

Statement time has arrived, and the Bulls can ill afford to squander a syllable.

USF's case for an NCAA regional must commence tonight at Houston's Cougar Field, where the Bulls (21-15, 7-5 American Athletic Conference) embark on a three-game series against the 12th-ranked Cougars (27-9, 4-5). 

Any postponement of momentum will be too late. The Bulls, 0-4 against ranked opposition this year, not only must find their groove tonight, but remain in it. If they can, a postseason berth is salvageable.

Half of USF's last 20 games are against teams ranked in a top-25 poll, with seven of those on the road. A 7-3 record against ranked foes down the stretch would give USF a .500 season mark against top-25 teams and boost its feeble RPI (159th per college RPI expert Warren Nolan).

The Bulls enter tonight's game on a two-game win streak following Tuesday's 10-3 home rout of Stetson. They take a .270 team batting average into the Houston series, where they'll face a weekend rotation with a collective ERA below 2.50.

Bulls sophomore RHP Jimmy Herget (5-4), whose 1.03 ERA leads the conference, starts tonight, followed by junior RHP Casey Mulholland (3-0, 3.19 ERA) on Friday and redshirt freshman RHP Tommy Peterson (3-1, 1.93) on Saturday.

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Men's basketball: For now, all Bulls on board

Orlando Antigua, who spent the past five seasons as a Kentucky assistant, said any potential Wildcats-USF series is far down the line. "I'm sure somewhere down the line that may be a conversation to have," he said.


Orlando Antigua, who spent the past five seasons as a Kentucky assistant, said any potential Wildcats-USF series is far down the line. "I'm sure somewhere down the line that may be a conversation to have," he said.

He's still struggling to differentiate between Fowler and Fletcher, let alone remember the passcode to his office. New home? Orlando Antigua's only real address these days is the Muma Basketball Center.

"It's still a whirlwind," USF's new men's coach said.

Yet for now, stability presides at the center of it. Antigua may have lost his sense of direction a time or two in his new environment, but he apparently has lost no players.

That includes PG Anthony Collins. Amid speculation the Bulls' sleek veteran is pondering a transfer in the wake of former coach Stan Heath's disimissal, Antigua said Wednesday that Collins has shined in the Bulls' inaugural workouts with the new staff.

"He's been great in the workouts, going really hard, getting his conditioning better," Antigua told reporters Wednesday. "I just think he's a heck of a talent. Just hope to keep pushing him and help him keep working."

Only one player -- Heath's son, Josh -- has exited since Heath's dismissal, but even that was before Antigua was hired. While some roster turnover is conceivable once the semester ends later this month, Antigua said the handful of preliminary workouts have been encouraging.

"What I can tell you is, the last few days we've been able to work with them...they've been great," Antigua said.

"They've been energetic, they've been into everything that we're doing, and I appreciate that. So hopefully they're seeing that even in that short period of time, they've gotten better."

Collins, the lone holdover from USF's 2012 NCAA Tournament team, missed all of conference play last season due to complications from summer surgery to remove an inflamed bursa sac from his left knee.

Antigua didn't elaborate on Collins physical progress, but said, "I think he's got a bright future."

Meantime, Antigua's new assistants, younger brother Oliver and 17-year NBA veteran PG Rod Strickland, also sat down briefly with reporters Wednesday. Some highlights:

* The Antigua brothers concurred USF will try to sign at least one player during the NCAA's spring signing period, which began Wednesday. "Everything is on the table: transfers, jucos, high school kids, best available," Oliver Antigua said.

"At this point, when you get the job so late, it's very important that you don't do a knee-jerk reaction...but you try to find good pieces that can fit. So that's the hardest part." 

* Strickland, who served on John Calipari's staffs at Memphis and Kentucky following the end of his NBA career, said he was taken aback by the quality of USF's facilities.

"I don't know if I should say this but I was shocked," he said. "And just shocked because I didn't know. ... I walked in and was like, 'Wow.'

* Orlando Antigua, who spent the past five seasons as a Kentucky assistant, said any potential Wildcats-USF series is far down the line. "I'm sure somewhere down the line that may be a conversation to have," he said.

"The way (Calipari) has been with his former assistants, he doesn't like to play them if he has a choice. But if it benefits the program then he's willing to do it."

* Oliver Antigua said recruiting USF's backyard is a major priority. "Very important," he said. "Tons of talent in the next few classes. We've already reached out to the top players and the coaches. It's going to be a priority."

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USF women expected to sign juco All-American

Two-time junior college All-America PG Briana Brooks is one of two women's players expected to sign with USF on Wednesday, when the NCAA's signing period for basketball (and most other sports) commences.

Spaniard Laia Flores, a point guard for her nation's under-18 team, also is expected to sign.

Brooks, who hails from Tyler, Texas, was a two-time first-team NJCAA All-American and conference player of the year at Weatherford (Texas) College. As a freshman, she led her conference in scoring (17.7 ppg), assists (7.9) and steals (2.7).

As a sophomore, she averaged 18.6 points and seven assists, leading the Coyotes to their second consecutive North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference title. 

Flores averaged nine points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists in nine games for Spain's under-16 team in the 2012 European Championships, where it won eight of nine games. Her under-18 team won the title a year later, with Flores averaging four points, two boards and 1.4 assists.

Bulls coach Jose Fernandez loses only two seniors -- G Inga Orekhova and C Akila McDonald -- from last season's 23-13 team that reached the WNIT semifinals.

One of his early signees, 5-11 Portuguese national team member Laura Ferreira, recently was rated 49th on the espnW HoopGurlz top 100 national rankings for the Class of '14.

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Inga Orekhova drafted by WNBA's Atlanta Dream

Four months after returning to action only 12 days following knee surgery, Inga Orekhova has pulled off the unprecedented again.

The 6-foot-2 guard from Ukraine became USF's highest WNBA Draft selection Monday night, going to the Atlanta Dream with the 18th overall pick (second round). She becomes the Bulls' third WNBA draftee, joining Jessica Dickson (21st overall, 2007) and Andrea Smith (35th, '13). …

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Antigua hires 3 staffers, including brother

As expected, new USF coach Orlando Antigua has filled two of his staff openings, hiring younger brother Oliver and 17-year NBA veteran Rod Strickland as assistants.

The hirings were formally announced by the school Monday evening. Jerry McCullough, a New York City prep coach and former teammate of Orlando Antigua's at Pitt, was named director of basketball operations.

The hirings leave Antigua with one more assistant vacancy on his coaching staff. The newcomers' contracts weren't immediately available, but Antigua has a $700,000 salary pool for next season to distribute among three assistants and a director of basketball operations.

Oliver Antigua's arrival hardly should trigger any nepotism alarms. Bulls women's soccer coach Denise Schilte-Brown is assisted by her husband, Chris; and the husband-wife tandem of Jim Baxter and Michele Woods-Baxter serve on women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez's staff.

"Oliver is a terrific recruiter and coaches with great energy and passion which will benefit us here at USF," Orlando Antigua said in a USF news release. "He helped assemble a recruiting class at Seton Hall that was ranked No. 10 in the nation and No. 1 in the Big East Conference."

Prior to his one season at Seton Hall, Oliver spent the 2012-13 season as an assistant to Steve Masiello at Manhattan. Masiello was USF's first choice for its coaching job before inaccuracies were discovered on his resume.

He also spent 13 seasons as coach at St. Raymond High in the Bronx (the Antigua brothers' alma mater), leading the Ravens to five Catholic High School Athletic Association Class AA titles.

The hiring of Strickland, who served with Orlando Antigua on John Calipari's staff at Kentucky, arrives with more scrutiny.

A two-time All-American at DePaul and former first-round draft choice of the New York Knicks, Strickland has four DUI-related arrests, the most recent in 2010.

Following the last arrest, in Lexington, Strickland reportedly flew to former NBA star John Lucas' Houston-based drug treatment program and stayed three months. He has since remained a special assistant to Calipari on the Wildcats' staff. …

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Josh Heath commits to Georgia Tech

Two weeks after being granted his release from USF, freshman PG Josh Heath has found a new college home.

The former Tampa Prep standout, who led the Terrapins to their only state championship in 2012, is transferring to Georgia Tech. The news was confirmed by his father Stan, who was dismissed as Bulls coach on March 14. Stan Heath said his son will be a scholarship player for the ACC program.

Josh Heath visited the Yellow Jackets' downtown Atlanta campus this weekend. Jackets coach Brian Gregory and Stan Heath were assistants to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo when the Spartans won the 2000 national title.

Though NCAA rules typically require Division I transfers to sit out a season, Heath is expected to be eligible immediately. The NCAA consistently has granted eligibility waivers to student-athletes whose fathers lose their coaching jobs.

Heath, forced to relinquish his redshirt in January due to PG Anthony Collins' lingering knee problems, had 62 assists and 27 turnovers in 17 games for the Bulls (12-20).

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No-no for Nevins...and a milestone to boot

As part of her enslavement to ritual, USF left-hander Sara Nevins repeatedly pounds the ball into her glove between pitches -- and even between innings -- until it lands flush in the webbing.

The welt on her right ring finger attests to the superstition.

"It's bruised and swollen from it," the Pinellas Park alumnus said. "If I throw it low and it goes low into the glove, I feel like I'm going to throw a ball the next pitch. I have to do it like, one to three times before I get a strike."

On a warm, sunny Saturday, that discolored finger was Nevins' lone blemish of the afternoon.

The Bulls' senior ace recorded her 1,000th career strikeout in the fourth inning against UCF, then delivered an encore: her seventh career no-hitter in a 4-0 victory in Game One of a doubleheader. UCF won the second, 3-1.

Nevins is only the 80th Division I player -- and fifth active pitcher -- to hit the 1,000-strikeout mark. Her total stands at 1,003 after fanning 10 Knights and allowing only two base runners. …

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Softball: Nevins nearing millenial mark

Human nature suggests Bulls fans may have grown mildly numb to left-hander Sara Nevins' repetitive torment of batters over the last four springs. Ken Eriksen suggests it too.

"We're here in Tampa and...the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and it's not exotic because it's in your hometown," USF's veteran softball coach said. "But that's pretty exotic stuff."

Pretty exclusive stuff as well.

Nevins, named Thursday as one of 25 finalists for the USA Softball Player of the Year Award, needs only seven more strikeouts to become the fifth active Division I pitcher with 1,000 for her career. 

Considering the opposition, it's a milestone as credible as the Pinellas Park alumnus' fastball. Of Nevins' school-record 993 strikeouts, 140 (14.1 percent) have come against ranked opposition. Her 189 strikeouts this season rank ninth nationally.

"It's not an every-year occurrence. Actually it's not an every-four-year occurrence," Eriksen said.

"I think you're probably going to see the end of an era from that right now, simply because the hitters are so much better. So when you're spending four years against the schedule she has played against, that's pretty special."

Nevins can hit the millenial mark Saturday, when the Bulls (29-11, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) host UCF in a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m..

Quality K's
USF senior left-hander Sara Nevins has posted double-digit strikeout totals against four ranked opponents in her career:

Michigan/2014/10/L, 2-3
FSU/2012/11/W, 2-1
Florida/2012/12/W, 1-0
Michigan/2011/13/L, 2-7

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Huskies give conference some cred

The succession of shining moments forged by Connecticut's men and women basketball teams in the last three weekends provided a few beams to a fledgling conference in dire need of them.

Even as it regresses into a mid-major football league by most observations, the American Athletic Conference has some serious hoops cache today, courtesy of mainly the Huskies.

From the men's standpoint, that status isn't likely to be deflated by the exits of Louisville and Rutgers (and arrivals of Tulsa, Tulane, East Carolina and ultimately Navy). Consider:

* American men's teams were a combined 13-4 in postseason play, giving the league the highest postseason winning percentage (.765) in the nation. Louisville accounted for only two wins and a loss in that equation.

* The American went 9-3 in the NCAA men's tournament for a winning percentage (.750) that trailed only the SEC (.800).

* The league accounted for three of the five men's Associated Press first-team All-Americans: UConn G Shabazz Napier, Cincinnati G Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville G Russ Smith. 

* The American is the only league in the nation to place a team in the semifinal rounds of the NCAA men's and women's tournament, the NIT and WNIT. Each championship game of those tournaments featured a conference team

* For the second year in a row, it will enter a season (2014-15) with the reigning men's and women's NCAA champion.

Statistically, the American ended the season with the only men's player in the country with a triple-double (Napier). Four men's teams (Cincinnati, Louisville, SMU, UConn) finished among the country's top 36 in scoring defense and the top 20 in field-goal percentage defense. 

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Staff assembly top priority for Antigua

Less than 40 hours after exiting the AT&T Stadium floor with the rest of Kentucky's dejected entourage, Orlando Antigua was expected to report for his new gig at USF.

USF's sports information department said Antigua, a Wildcats assistant hired March 31 to replace Stan Heath as Bulls coach, was expected in his new office early Wednesday afternoon.

Details of his initial itinerary weren't clear, but Antigua is expected to begin assembling a staff and meeting with Bulls players before being given a pass code to the door of the practice facility. …

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False resume cost Masiello $6.25 million from USF

Manhattan announced it will reinstate Steve Masiello as Jaspers coach once he has completed his communications degree from UK. Until then, he'll be on unpaid leave.

AP photo

Manhattan announced it will reinstate Steve Masiello as Jaspers coach once he has completed his communications degree from UK. Until then, he'll be on unpaid leave.

The voided contract Steve Masiello signed with USF would've paid the Manhattan coach $1.5 million more over five years than the one signed by Orlando Antigua, to whom the school turned when Masiello failed a background check.

Masiello's contract, signed by the coach and USF athletic director Mark Harlan on March 25, was provided by the school Monday upon a public-records request from the Tampa Bay Times. The total package (not counting performance bonuses) was $6.25 million over five years.

The contract was nullified shortly thereafter when a standard background check indicated Masiello never graduated from the University of Kentucky as his resume indicated.

On Monday, Manhattan announced it will reinstate Masiello as Jaspers coach once he has completed his communications degree from UK. Until then, he'll be on unpaid leave, with associate head coach Matt Grady running the team.

"After an extensive review of the situation and extenuating circumstances, we determined that Mr. Masiello executed poor judgment but did not intentionally misrepresent himself in applying to (Manhattan)," Manhattan president Brennan O'Donnell said in a prepared statement.

"After participating in graduation ceremonies at the University of Kentucky, he enrolled in summer courses with the intention of completing his degree, but never followed through to make sure that the degree was awarded."

Masiello's contract at USF called for him to receive a $415,000 annual base salary and $765,000 in additional compensation and benefits, with annual built-in escalators growing to $55,000 by the contract's final year.

Antigua, unlike Masiello, arrives at USF with no prior college head coaching experience. He signed a five-year deal worth $4.75 million including an annual $375,000 base salary and $525,000 in extra compensation and benefits. Antigua's contract calls for annual $25,000 escalators.

Performance incentives essentially were the same in both contracts, though Masiello's staff salary pool was smaller.

Antigua's salary pool -- for three assistants and a director of basketball operations -- will be $700,000 next season and gradually top out at $800,000. Masiello's pool began at $650,000 and ultimately would have grown to $750,000.

Masiello's contract was nullified under Item 10, in which he affirmed (by his signature) the "resume and education credentials" described in his official Manhattan College bio were true and accurate.

"I made a mistake that could have cost me my job at an institution I love," Masiello said in the statement released Monday.

"Details matter.  Manhattan College has shown me a great deal of compassion and trust during this process, and I will do everything in my power to uphold that trust."

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Stampede of Champions honors Bulls' best

USF two-sport athlete Matthew O'Neal and reigning American Athletic Conference volleyball player of the year Erin Fairs were named the school's male and female athletes of the year, respectively, at a Bulls-centric, ESPY-type gala Sunday.

Billed as the second annual "Stampede of Champions," the event was staged by USF's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Every USF team was represented at the formal-attire affair held at the Sun Dome.

A complete list of award winners can be found here.

O'Neal, a junior from Jackson, Miss., recently set USF's outdoor triple-jump record (53 feet) and was a defender on USF's 2013 NCAA-Tournament qualifying team that posted eight shutouts.

Fairs, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Texas, led the American in kills (429) and averaged the most digs per set (4.41) of any outside hitter in the nation last fall.

The Bulls men's golf team, which won the 2013 Big East title, was named team of the year. Softball coach Ken Eriksen, whose '13 club won the Big East tournament championship, was named coach of the year.

Junior Sam Greiner, a pitcher on Eriksen's club, was presented the Lee Roy Selmon Award, given to the student-athlete who provides an enduring example of "integrity, academic excellence, compassion and competitiveness."

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Baseball: Frustration mounts amid Bulls' swoon

For a few seconds Sunday afternoon, Brandon Lawson's fastball and Lelo Prado's frustration traveled parallel northerly trajectories.

Then, their paths diverged. Gravity ultimately brought Lawson's pitch down, well beyond the left field fence of USF Baseball Stadium. Prado's irritation, however, seemed to only gain altitude in the ensuing hours.

"Everybody has to listen, got to listen to what we're trying to teach," said Prado, who watched UCF shortstop Tommy Williams homer twice -- once off Lawson -- in the Knights' 6-3 victory Sunday before an announced USF Baseball Stadium audience of 1,739.

"That's why we struggle. The selfishness pops up every once in a while."

Meantime, fan unrest is starting to surface as well.

A season Prado essentially proclaimed as regional or bust suddenly is veering toward the latter. After opening the season with a seven-game win streak, USF (18-14, 5-4 American Athletic Conference) has hit a spring swoon, dropping seven of its last 10.

During that stretch, the pitching has mostly ranged from solid to spectacular. On Saturday, right-hander Casey Mulholland tossed a complete game in a 4-2 win against UCF.

But in that same span, the Bulls have scored two or fewer runs six times. They collected nine hits off five Knights pitchers Sunday, but stranded nine base runners.

"There's nothing good about that," said Prado, who team is batting a collective .262. "A lot of hits with nobody on base don't count for me."

When the missed opportunities were accompanied by missed location, Prado's chagrin reached its apex.

Williams' first homer Sunday came in the second inning off redshirt freshman Tommy Peterson, a River Ridge alumnus making his first collegiate start. When Lawson was summoned in the fifth, Prado said he warned the former Hernando High ace to pitch Williams low and away.

The next inning, with two out and a runner aboard, Williams gave UCF a 4-1 lead. It was his third homer in two days.

"(Lawson's) still young, young guys do some stupid things sometimes," Prado said. "He tried to sneak a fastball in there and (Williams) hit it out. Credit to him. We made two mistakes on him and he hit 'em both out."

Yet opportunity for atonement remains.

Prado, still seeking his first regional in eight seasons at USF, said his club will see UCF again in the conference tournament. Meantime, the Bulls have plenty of chances -- including series against top-25 foes Houston and Louisville, and a game against Florida -- to build an NCAA resume.

But the margin for error is dwindling. Urgency is on the clock.

"There should be urgency all over USF. I mean, everybody should want to win," said Prado, in the final year of a contract that was extended in the fall of 2011.

"These guys know, they've got to come out and win baseball games. We've just got to do it, you've got to win games. But you've got to listen and you've got to do it as a team."

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Softball: Bulls drop doubleheader to Louisville

On an afternoon when USF's offense, pitching and luck mostly were sporadic, Bulls coach Ken Eriksen cast the blame elsewhere.

On the team's resident insomniac.

"I'm gonna have a tough time sleeping tonight," said Eriksen, whose club emerged from a 12-day layoff Saturday by losing both ends of a doubleheader to Louisville. "I might not. I might grab a cot and sleep in the office, and take a look at what I can do better."

In their first live action since March 23, the Bulls, whose series at Rutgers last weekend was postponed due to inclement weather, stranded 15 base runners in 14 innings to watch their seven-game win streak vanish.

A microcosm of their day materialized in the third inning of Game Two. With one out and the bases loaded, Lee Ann Spivey smacked a line drive down the third-base line, but Whitney Arion snagged the ball and caught Kourtney Salvarola off the bag for a double play.

Louisville would prevail, 3-0. The Cardinals (22-15, 4-4 American Athletic Conference) took the opener, 5-1, essentially clinching things on Katie Keller's seventh-inning three-run home run to left off reliever Sam Greiner.

Bulls left-handed ace Sara Nevins started Game One and pitched five scoreless innings before being pulled after allowing a one-out single and walk in the sixth. Three batters later, sophomore Erica Nunn issued a two-out, two-run single to Kayla Soles.

"We didn't do a very good job this week preparing 'em for Louisville," said Eriksen, whose club hosts the Cardinals in the series finale Sunday at 11 a.m.

"The aspect of coming off last was my fault really for not turning up the heat a little bit on Monday and Tuesday at practice. It's a bad assumption that you've got things going in the right direction and the team feels comfortable.

"You can't let that happen, and that's on me."

Senior Stephanie Medina led USF (29-10, 3-2) at the plate, finishing the day 3-for-6. In five American Athletic Conference games, Medina is 6-for-15 with a home run and five RBI.

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Bulls relay team sets school record

The USF men's 4x100-meter relay team, featuring former Bulls WR Derrick Hopkins, set a school record with a winning time of 40.34 seconds at today's USF Collegiate on its home track.

The foursome -- Hopkins, Chareif Lewis, Dae Young Yoon and Alfred Higgs -- eclipsed the 4-year-old mark (40.75) by nearly a half-second. Hopkins also was on the previous record-setting foursome, along with football teammates Lindsey Lamar and Kayvon Webster.

The Bulls men placed second and the women third in the four-school event, which also featured Cincinnati, Kennesaw State and Minnesota.

Other USF men's champions were Alex Hoffman in the 800 meters (1:53.82), Michael Babinec in the 5,000 meters (15:56.74), Christopher Grinley in the 110 hurdles (14.14), Paul Barrett in the 400 hurdles (52.66) and Matthew O'Neal in the triple jump (52-9.5).

Barrett won the Class 3A state title in the 300 hurdles at Gaither two years ago. Babinec was a 4A medalist for Riverview at the state cross country meet in the fall of 2011.

High jumper Courtney Anderson (5-foot-10) and long jumper Natasha Stewart (18-11.25) won women's titles for the Bulls.

USF's David Shepherd, competing unattached, won the men's pole vault (16-5.25).

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