Bulls eye regional repeat with transformed roster
The spontaneous uproar epitomized May madness.
When their name materialized on a bracket during the NCAA Tournament selection show last Memorial Day, USF's baseball players hopped from their seats in a Selmon Athletics Center conference room in unfiltered jubilation. There were hollers, hugs, even hurrahs.
For many in the room, they were, quite literally, last hurrahs.
When the Bulls fell to FAU in an elimination game at the Gainesville Regional six days later, 15 Bulls pulled off their jerseys for the last time. Among them: the ace (Jimmy Herget), closer (Tommy Peterson), shortstop (Kyle Teaf), first baseman (Buddy Putnam) and center fielder (Austin Lueck). Suddenly, a breakthrough season was done.
And a breaking-in season beckoned. Welcome to Year Two of the Mark Kingston era.
"Maybe a lot of places, if it was Year Two you'd say, 'Okay, most of the team's back. We don't have to go over this, we don't have to go over that,'" Kingston said last week. "But we've had to do a lot of things from scratch this year because of the new numbers."
A game program will be a prerequisite for fans attending Friday night's season opener against Liberty at USF Baseball Stadium. No fewer than 20 new names -- including 16 freshmen -- dot the 2016 roster. RHP Pheonix Sanders, a junior college transfer, starts on the hill. As many as four or five freshmen could be behind him.
Their mission: build on the success forged by the '15 group (34-26-1), which snapped a 12-year postseason drought.
"We have a lot of new personnel to deal with," said Kingston, whose club is projected to make a second consecutive regional by Baseball America.
"We have expectations now that maybe we didn't have last year. So the key for me as the head coach is just to make sure we manage and approach these challenges properly, and that our guys are all moving in the right direction. We have new challenges, but I also think they're challenges that we can meet if we do this thing the right way."
The most pressing challenge, naturally, is developing a weekend pitching rotation.
Herget (10-3, 2.92 ERA) and fellow right-hander Casey Mulholland (5-9., 4.05) -- taken in the sixth and 37th rounds, respectively, in last summer's Major League Baseball Draft -- combined for 31 starts. Peterson amassed 16 saves and a 1.93 ERA before being snagged by the Nationals in the 12th round.
For now, the 5-foot-10 Sanders heads the weekend rotation, followed by 6-3 RHP Brad Labozzetta (another juco transfer) and 6-4 sophomore RHP Joe Cavallaro (3-2, 4.12 ERA in '15).
"From my standpoint at this point, Jimmy Herget was an A, and Tommy Peterson proved to be an A last year," Kingston said.
"What we have right now is a lot of Bs that are working to try to get into that A-level. Tommy Peterson going into last year was probably a B-minus, but he turned himself into an A by his hard work and by finding a new role for him. So what we're trying to do is figure out what are the best roles for guys, where will these Bs be able to turn into As."
While one end of the battery is in flux, the other arguably never has been more solid. Unanimous first-team All-American Athletic Conference pick Levi Borders, bypassed with little explanation in last year's draft, returns after starting all 61 games at catcher in 2015.
Elsewhere, sophomore Kevin Merrell is nearly as entrenched at second base after a dazzling rookie season (.346, 21 stolen bases), with Maglich (.306, eight home runs, 38 RBI) back in right field and Borders' brother, Luke (.266, two home runs, 46 RBI) the likely DH.
Expect rookies -- many preceded by considerable hype -- to be interspersed elsewhere.
OF Garrett Zech, selected the AAC's Preseason Freshman of the Year by D1Baseball.com, was among four drafted freshmen who opted to enroll in school. The others -- OF Chris Chatfield of Spoto High, INF Coco Montes and INF Joe Genord -- all were named among 10 AAC "impact freshmen" by the AAC.
"I feel like everybody on the field is capable of playing at this level of baseball," Maglich said.
"I think that's a little bit different than years past. Not saying that negatively, but I think just the average potential, between the guys that are coming in and the guys that are returning, has definitely taken a step in the right direction, and it's a good feeling."
Now, it's a matter of melding the components -- green newcomers and grizzled upperclassmen -- into a unit that could produce a few more May hurrahs.
"You want to combine veteran, you want to combine youth, you want to combine prospects with tools, but you also need some guys that are just good old-fashioned ballplayers," Kingston said.
"We may not get 'til three or four weeks into the season before we really have a great handle on it."