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USF baseball has key series with Notre Dame

With an 18-8 record, USF baseball has matched its best 26-game record in 15 years, and the Bulls are at home this weekend for a key Big East series against Notre Dame.

The Bulls and Fighting Irish both opened 3-0 in conference play, joining Louisville and Connecticut atop the league standings. The Bulls have an advantage this season because they also face Louisville and UConn at home. USF and Notre Dame are two of only three Big East teams with fewer than 10 losses, with Louisville as the only other, so winning this series would set the Bulls up among the league's top contenders.

USF opened up 18-8 in 2007, Lelo Prado's first season, when they started 22-8, and they were 18-8 in 2004, opening 23-8. To find a better start, you have to go back to 1997, when USF opened 19-7 on the way to a 39-24 record and NCAA regionals appearance. The Bulls are seeking their first NCAA berth since 2002.

The Bulls open the three-game series with Notre Dame tonight at 7, then play again Saturday at 6 and Sunday at 1. USF softball, off to a 30-5 record and fresh off a win at No. 4 Florida on Wednesday, is on the road this weekend at Pittsburgh, starting with a doubleheader Saturday afternoon.

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Hope personified: Meet the new USF walk-ons

Walk-ons have played a key role in USF's football program throughout its history, so it's always interesting to get the names for a new crop of walk-ons joining the Bulls each spring, even if only a handful will make it to August and the actual fall roster.

Most of the walk-on success stories are "preferred walk-ons," or kids who didn't come in on scholarship, but at least were assured of a roster spot as they started their USF careers. Those guys have it easy compared to spring additions like the 20 players who joined the Bulls last week, having survived from an initial group of 80 that were whittled down through physical tests, academic background checks and a month of winter conditioning, which is often the biggest hurdle to clear before a walk-on gets so much as his first actual practice.

All we have for the new crop is a list of names, but after some extensive Googling, we can share some of the backstories and find that many showed up on the recruiting radar at one point or another before taking the harder path to college football glory. Some notes ... …

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USF softball knocks off No. 4 Florida, 4-1

USF softball picked up a huge win Wednesday night, as the No. 21 Bulls held on for a 4-1 win at No. 4 Florida, getting clutch hitting for an early lead and then a complete-game victory from sophomore Sara Nevins.

USF (30-5) led 2-0 in the first after a sacrifice fly by Kourtney Salvarola and a two-out RBI single by Janine Richardson. The Bulls added two more on an infield error and another sacrifice fly, and Nevins pitched herself out of late-inning jams. She got two strikeouts in the seventh inning, ending the game with the tying run at the plate for the Gators (29-3).

The Bulls have now won 10 games in a row and 15 of their last 16 -- Wednesday's win ended a 12-game losing streak for USF in the series with Florida, and also ended the Gators' 16-game home winning streak. Wednesday's game was actually USF's first road game of the season, with the first 34 all played either at USF or in tournaments hosted by the Bulls in Clearwater. After a 3-0 start in Big East play, the Bulls have a three-game series this weekend at Pittsburgh (16-13), which was swept by Louisville last weekend.

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Heath proud to show off new Sun Dome

sundome2.jpg(Here is video from today's news conference taken by the Times' Joseph Garnett Jr. At left is latest rendering from USF of what the renovated Sun Dome will look like.)

TAMPA -- When Stan Heath became USF's men's basketball coach five years ago, he heard about the school investing in the program, about a new practice facility and long-overdue renovations to the Sun Dome, the Bulls' home since 1980.

On Wednesday, standing in USF's Muma Center practice facility, Heath smiled as he talked about the upcoming completion of a $35 million Sun Dome makeover, in time to host spring commencement ceremonies in early May.

"Five years ago, none of this existed. It was just a conversation," Heath said. "To see it come to fruition is amazing. A lot of people say things, they're going to do this, going to do that. To watch how quickly things have changed here is just so impressive. ... It doesn't get much better than this." …

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12:30: Chat live with Tom Jones

Want to talk about the Final Four, Bucs, Rays, Lightning, Frozen Four, sports on TV/radio? Whatever's on your mind, join Times sports personality Tom Jones for a live chat today, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Can't make it? Leave a question in the "Comments'' area below, then check back afterward to replay the chat.

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USF football learns Big East schedule for 2012

The Big East released its 2012 conference football schedule on Tuesday, with USF tentatively opening Big East play on Sept. 15 against Rutgers and serving as Temple's first conference opponent in the Owls' return to the league on Oct. 6.

The seven dates are as follows -- Rutgers, Sept. 15; at Temple, Oct. 6; at Louisville, Oct. 20; vs. Syracuse, Oct. 27; vs. Connecticut, Nov. 3; at Cincinnati on Friday, Nov. 23; and vs. Pittsburgh on Dec. 1.

The Rutgers game could still be tweaked and has been mentioned as a potential Thursday night game, but that would come just five days after USF's Sept. 8 game at Nevada. The Bulls have another short week for a key road game, with a game at Cincinnati just six days after a Nov. 17 game at Miami.

What's more, three of USF's seven Big East games have uneven prep time -- Temple and UConn both have bye weeks before facing the Bulls, who have games the previous weekends; USF gets the same advantage in its favor with a bye leading into Louisville, which is at Pittsburgh right before hosting the Bulls. Syracuse gets a bonus day before its USF game because it plays UConn on a Friday the week before. …

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Healthy again, Mitchell excited about return

TAMPA -- Terrence Mitchell hasn't taken that first big hit yet, but for the first time in six months, the USF sophomore receiver is back on a football field, excited to return to the sport he loves after missing most of last season with concussion symptoms after a violent collision in a September win against UTEP.

"I'm just excited to be back out there. It's been a long six, seven months without football," Mitchell said last week as the Bulls opened a month of spring football drills. "It's just amazing to get back out there and be with my brothers and be able to play and run around with them."

Mitchell, one of the fastest but smallest players on the team at 5-foot-10 and 158 pounds, was injured making a tackle on a UTEP fake punt in the Bulls' fourth game of the season, a full-speed hit that sent him to the hospital and resulted in him missing the last eight games of the season and ultimately taking a medical redshirt. He's been symptom-free since the end of last year, and the best step in his recovery was returning to the practice field and the company of his teammates. …

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USF signee Hawkins in New Orleans dunk contest

USF men's basketball's NCAA Tournament run didn't make it all the way to New Orleans, but one of the Bulls' future players will be there this weekend, as guard JaVontae Hawkins of Flint, Mich., will participate in the American Family Insurance High School Slam Dunk Championships, which will be broadcast on CBS on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

Hawkins, one of the most decorated players in Stan Heath's incoming recruiting class, is one of eight high school players competing in the dunk contest. Here's a full list of the entrants. ... Hawkins is active on Twitter, and USF fans can follow him here.

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Ex-Bulls lineman Simon diagnosed with epilepsy

David "Boo" Simon, the USF freshman offensive lineman who had to withdraw from school last month due to a series of seizures, has been diagnosed with epilepsy, according to a story in the Mobile Press-Register.

"It's probably for my best health not to play football anymore," Simon told the newspaper, "so I've had to walk away from the game. I know some players have been able to play with it. But, I think my life, my brain is more important down the road than football."

Here's a link to the full story, in which Simon talks about the continued support he's gotten from USF coach Skip Holtz and his Bulls teammates. He also says he won't be returning to USF, even though he would have a scholarship there, and that he'll likely enroll somewhere closer to his home, like the University of Alabama. He's optimistic he can move forward without brain surgery, he told the newspaper, controlling his condition with medication.

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Nevins, Medina sweep Big East weekly honors

Another dominating week from USF softball has resulted in Bulls sophomores Sara Nevins and Stephanie Medina sweeping the Big East weekly honors, taking the nods for pitcher and player of the week.

Nevins, who won the award for the fourth time in five weeks, threw 19.2 innings and gave up one run, earning the win in all three weekend wins against Rutgers in USF's first Big East series of the season. She leads the Big East in nine pitching statistics, including ERA (0.64), strikeouts (167) and total innings pitched (130.1).

Medina went 6-for-13 on the week, with eight RBIs, including a pair of home runs. In the three-game sweep of Rutgers, she drove in six runs.

USF baseball's Andrew Barbosa made the league's weekly honor roll after he struck out 13 Georgetown batters in Friday's Big East opener. Barbosa held the Hoyas to one hit in six innings.

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USF's Gilchrist to play for scouts in Portsmouth

USF senior forward Augustus Gilchrist, the leading scorer on the Bulls' first NCAA Tournament team in 20 years, has been invited to participate in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a top showcase event in Virginia for NBA Draft hopefuls.

Gilchrist, 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, finished his Bulls career 10th on the program's career scoring list, though his average dropped to 9.5 points per game as a senior. Gilchrist averaged 5.0 rebounds this past season, which ranked third on the team, and he led the Bulls with 1.2 blocks per game.

The PIT, held April 11-14, will give Gilchrist a chance to showcase his skills for NBA scouts and front-office personnel. He's USF's first player in Portsmouth since center Kentrell Gransberry in 2008 after Stan Heath's first season with the Bulls.

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Plant City WR Wiggins headed to East Mississippi

As has been expected since he committed to the Bulls, Plant City receiver LaMarlin Wiggins, who signed with USF in February, is headed to East Mississippi Community College, with plans to return to the Bulls in January 2014.

The good news for USF is that Wiggins is expected to play only one of his two seasons at EMCC, which would give him three years of eligibility at USF if everything goes as planned. The academic goal is for Wiggins to enroll this fall and be in position to earn his Associate of Arts degree in time to join the Bulls for the spring semester in 2014.

EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens has a long relationship with USF, having worked with former Bulls players Kion Wilson, Craig Marshall, Theo Wilson and Claude Davis between his time at EMCC and his work as defensive coordinator at Pearl River before that. Stephens said his program is graduating 98 percent of its players, putting Wiggins in good position to get to the Bulls on schedule. …

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Pitching keys 3-game sweeps for baseball, softball

USF's baseball and softball teams both opened Big East play this weekend with dominating three-game sweeps, with pitching leading the way for both Bulls squads.

We'll start with softball, which is now 29-5 after shutting out Rutgers three times, the last a 1-0 gem in which the Bulls won despite having only two hits. Sara Nevins won for the third day in a row, throwing 6.2 innings of scoreless baseball, and USF's lone run came when Kenshyra Jackson was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded (on another HBP and two walks) in the fifth inning.

How dominant has USF softball's pitching been? The Bulls have allowed seven total runs in their last 15 games, and they're 14-1 during that stretch. Nevins started all three games against Rutgers, pitching 14.2 of the 17 innings. Only one team in the past 15 games has scored more than one run on USF, and that was Fairfield, which had two in USF's only loss in that run. …

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Holtz: Lamar has moved to running back

TAMPA -- Rising senior Lindsey Lamar, one of the team's fastest players, has moved back to running back after spending the last two seasons at wide receiver, taking from a position of great depth to help a position lacking proven, veteran players.

"We've moved Lamar back to the running back position," coach Skip Holtz said after Saturday's practice, the Bulls' first in pads. "With Darrell Scott's departure, you have Demetris Murray as really the only proven back there. At the inside "H" receiver, you have Victor Marc that's played a lot, you have Terrence Mitchell that can go in there, Derrick Hopkins. We felt like we had a little depth there, and we wanted to put one more guy in the mix there at the running back position."

Lamar is among USF's smallest players at 5-foot-9, 164 pounds, but he also has game-breaking speed, having won the Big East indoor track 60-meter championship last month. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2010 on the way to being named Big East Special Teams Player of the Year. That breakaway speed, much like junior Marcus Shaw, will complement Murray as a change-of-pace option. …

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Big weekend starts tonight for USF athletics

Just as the excitement of USF's men's basketball run in the NCAA Tournament is dying down, USF has a huge weekend that starts up tonight, with baseball and softball opening their Big East schedules at home, as well as women's basketball trying to extend its season yet again with a WNIT game at James Madison.

USF baseball (14-8) has its best record entering Big East play since 2007, Lelo Prado's first season, when the Bulls were 13-6 and finished with a 34-26 record. The Bulls, who open tonight at 7 against Georgetown, have their first two Big East series at home, with the benefit of having 15 of their 27 Big East games at home this season. Prado will start senior Andrew Barbosa tonight, with Joe LoVecchio following on Saturday and Matt Reed expected to get the start on Sunday. …

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