Big weekend ahead for baseball, track
With USF men's golf fresh off a Big East title and softball hosting the conference tournament Thursday, the Bulls have a considerable amount of spring momentum, and that can continue this weekend with track at the Big East outdoor championships at Rutgers and first-place baseball in a key series at Notre Dame.
First, track, which has quietly built up a solid run of conference success -- USF's men were second at last year's Big East outdoors and the women took third; at Big East indoors in February, USF's men took third and the women placed fourth. Could USF come home with another Big East crown? The women's team was actually closer a year ago -- the runner-up men finished 53 points behind champ Notre Dame, while USF's women took third at just 20 points behind champ Louisville. USF's official site has a comprehensive preview.
Best individual bets on the women's side? Monique Williams won the long and triple jumps at Big East indoors, and actually took fourth in the triple at last year's outdoors, one spot behind returning teammate Marqueshia Stallworth. She's also a top contender in the 100 meters. Another double threat? Women's pole vault, where Nicole Smith took second last year and Britanny London has the fifth-best qualifying mark this spring. Also watch Casey Wagner in the javelin and Rachael James in the 400, which she took second in last year.
For the men? Neamen Wise won the long jump last year, and Chase Meyers won the indoor high jump, with the highest qualifying outdoor mark as well. Freshman Matthew O'Neal, who doubles up as a defender in soccer, has the top qualifying mark in the triple jump. Watch for Drew Volz in the pole vault and Pascal Orelus in the 400. And in the 100, football receiver Derrick Hopkins is one to watch, but it's Kevin Bell who has the league's fastest qualifying time at 10.48 seconds.
Now baseball is atop the Big East standings at 13-2 with three weekends (nine conference games) remaining. The hard part? USF's remaining three series are all against teams in the current top six in the Big East standings -- Notre Dame is 7-8, but 7-2 at home; Seton Hall is 10-5, and Rutgers, which finishes the regular season in Tampa, is 8-7. What helps USF is that second-place Pittsburgh (who the Bulls swept) and third-place Louisville finish the regular season against each other, so there will be losses taken one way or the other there.
Curious that USF (13-2) and Notre Dame (7-8) have scored the exact same number of runs in conference play -- their difference is pitching, where the Bulls have allowed 29 fewer runs in those 15 games. The difference in ERA is even more, with USF at a league-low 2.65 in conference play, while Notre Dame is the league's third-worst at 4.78. USF pitchers have 30 more strikeouts and 12 fewer walks than the Irish.
One more stat to watch this weekend? Stolen-base efficiency. USF's catchers have been the league's toughest to steal on, with fully 45 percent of would-be base stealers getting thrown out. Notre Dame's defense has only gotten three outs so far on stolen bases, for 17 percent. So while the two teams are within one stolen base of each other as baserunning goes, there's a big difference in what they're allowing.
Softball, by the way, will find out its seeding for next week's Big East tournament while the Bulls are off this weekend. That canceled game at Seton Hall, where USF had to skip out on the second half of a doubleheader to catch a flight home, could end up costing the Bulls a share of the Big East regular-season title, so long as the Louisville-Notre Dame series isn't a sweep one way or another. The winner of that series, barring rain complications, will be the Big East's top seed in Tampa; USF should be the No. 2 seed, again barring weather cancellations.
What that also means is the Bulls likely won't have to face the Big East top seed until the conference championship game -- they'd face the loser of the Louisville-Notre Dame series in the semifinals. We'll have lots more on softball next week. ...