Track and field: Babinec finds his sweet spot

USF sophomore Michael Babinec, a former Riverview High standout, enters this weekend's American Athletic Conference Championships ranked sixth in the league in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Photo provided by USF

USF sophomore Michael Babinec, a former Riverview High standout, enters this weekend's American Athletic Conference Championships ranked sixth in the league in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

He never has met a snack cake he didn't like. If cookie dough were quality carbs, USF steeplechase specialist Michael Babinec might be an All-American.

"I'm big on sweets," the former Riverview High all-state runner said.

Former roommate Alex Hoffman, a Bulls middle-distance guy, recalls Babinec going through a Toll House tube in one sitting. Yet no sugar rush seemed intense enough to help him improve his splits in the conventional distance races, which Babinec found as bland as broccoli.

"I did the 5,000 (meters) my freshman year and it was really horrible," said Babinec, who nonetheless earned a Class 4A state medal in the 3,200 as a Sharks senior in 2012. 

"I don't really care for track that much; just an oval's not that much fun to me. Cross country, I can run whatever distance. ... I couldn't break my (personal record) in the 5,000 on the track. So it kind of mentally defeated me my freshman year and I wanted to kind of switch up the pace, just because I was having a really tough time." …

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Men's golf team 4th at conference tourney

In a furious, fleeting comeback attempt, the USF men's golf team made a cameo atop the leaderboard in Tuesday's final round before sagging to a fourth-place finish at the American Athletic Conference championships.

The Bulls recorded a three-day 15-over-par team score on Innisbrook's hailed Copperhead Course, nine shots behind winner SMU. UCF (7-over) and Houston (14-over) finished second and third, respectively. The Bulls entered the final round seven shots off the lead, but shot 4-under as a team on the front nine Tuesday before fading.

"We wanted some wind and we knew we needed to make up a little ground and did a great job of getting off to a great start," USF coach Chris Malloy told gousfbulls.com. "We took the lead and just gave up too many shots going down the stretch."

Sophomore Chase Koepka, the 2013 Big East Player of the Year, finished second individually at 2-under for the tournament, five shots behind SMU's Bryson Dechambeau. Koepka collected three birdies Tuesday en route to a 1-under 70 and 211 three-day total. Bulls freshman Rigel Fernandes (3-over 216) finished ninth. …

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McDonald, Williams among honorees at women's banquet

Senior center Akila McDonald (left) was among several honorees at USF's women's basketball awards banquet Monday night.

Times file photo

Senior center Akila McDonald (left) was among several honorees at USF's women's basketball awards banquet Monday night.

USF sophomore Courtney Willliams and senior Akila McDonald were named the Bulls' offensive and defensive MVPs, respectively, at the team's awards banquet Monday night.

Coach Jose Fernandez presented nine awards at the ceremony at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. USF (23-13, 13-5) won 10 of its last 12 games, reaching the semifinals of the WNIT.

Williams, who made the WNIT all-tournament team, led the Bulls in scoring (16.3 ppg) and became only the third player in program history to surpass 550 points in a season. She tallied 11 20-point games and 10 double-doubles.

McDonald, a 6-foot-4 center, notched career-bests in rebounds (203), blocks (team-best 65) and points (233). She finished her career with 130 games played, second-most in program history.

Freshman Katelyn Weber, a key backup to McDonald who appeared in 35 games, won the Golden Bull Award given to the player who best exemplifies hard work and a positive attitude. Williams, who started only three games and averaged 7.4 points as a freshman, was named most improved player. …

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AAC tabs Draper to oversee football

Former Michigan football administrator Scott Draper, who left the Wolverines program after receiving a letter of reprimand from the NCAA, has been named the American Athletic Conference's associate commissioner for football.

Draper has spent the last three years as an associate AD at Division III Albion (Mich.) College. He'll be the American's primary football administrator and contact for scheduling, officiating, operations and bowl relationships, the league announced.

"He brings two decades of high-level administrative experience and expertise to this important role in our conference," American commissioner Mike Aresco said in a conference news release.

"Most notably, Scott spent nearly 15 years in various administrative and operational roles at one of the premier programs in college football."

That tenure ended in the wake of an NCAA probe into Michigan's football program during the Rich Rodriguez era. The school admitted to four major violations including excessive practice hours and staffing mistakes. It also acknowledged a former aide lied to investigators.

Draper, then UM's assistant AD of football operations, was among seven employees who received a letter of reprimand. In brighter days at UM, he served on the staff of four Big Ten championship teams and was a graduate assistant on the Wolverines' 1997 national title squad.

"The thing that stands out about Scott is that he's paid his dues," former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr said in the release.

"He came to us as a student assistant, went on to become a graduate assistant, became our director of football operations, and then an assistant athletic director."

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Quackenbush gets big-league call-up

Less than three years after the San Diego Padres drafted him in the eighth round, former USF closer Kevin Quackenbush has been promoted to the organization's big-league club.

The 2007 Jesuit High graduate was called up Friday, joining Oakland A's reliever Dan Otero as the only former Bulls in the big leagues this season.

The 263rd overall pick in the 2011 Major League Baseball first-year player draft, Quackenbush posted a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings for the Padres' triple-A affiliate in El Paso, Texas, this season.

A four-time minor league all-star, he pitched at five different levels in the Padres' farm system. As a Bulls senior in 2011, he set a school record for relievers with a 0.80 ERA, leading the Big East with 12 saves.

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Bulls signee Holston makes Rivals top 150

USF signee Troy Holston, who helped guide Oldsmar Christian to a 25-10 record this past season, is No. 141 on Rivals' final rankings for the Class of 2014.

A 6-foot-4 shooting guard who signed last fall, Holston is the No. 7 American Athletic Conference recruit on the list. He's the third USF recruit in as many seasons to make the list, joining C John Egbunu (No. 83, 2013) and G Javontae Hawkins (No. 117, '12).

Facing a national schedule (Oldsmar is not affiliated with the FHSAA), Holston averaged 21 points, four rebounds and three assists last season. His long-range proficiency is being counted on by a team that finished last in Division I in 3-point percentage last season.

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Men's golf team hosts conference tourney

USF's men's golf team will try to continue the school's recent run on league titles starting Sunday, on a course with which it's all too familiar.

And as back yards go, this one's pretty daunting.

The Bulls venture 45 minutes west, to Innisbrook's Copperhead Course, for the three-day American Athletic Conference tournament. USF enters as a defending league champion, having won last spring's Big East tournament.

A repeat will require patience, Bulls coach Chris Malloy said. The 7,340-yard course features a series of meandering fairways lined with more trees and water than residences.

"It's just hard. It's demanding," said Malloy, whose team will try to join both Bulls tennis teams and the men's soccer squad as AAC champions in the league's inaugural year.

"It's a ball striker's course. It exposes any average shot, especially any bad shot. Usually a lot of golf courses we all like to play, we can get away with a bad shot here and there. Out there you can't. It forces you to be patient."

The Bulls, idle since late March, have been led most of the spring and fall by sophomore Chase Koepka (two victories, two top-five finishes). However, junior Trey Valentine won last month's Seminole Invitational in Tallahassee, shooting a 6-under-par 210 over 54 holes.

Malloy says to also keep an eye on freshman Rigel Fernandes, third at the Seminole Invitational; and senior Richard James, who shot a 67 in the postseason last year.

"If our guys go out and execute and do the things they can control, I really like our chances," Malloy said.

"The times that we've played well this year, that's what we've done. The times we've played poorly...the mental part of the game is what we've let just kind of slip."

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These guys could use some sunlight

To be sure, USF has enjoyed its share of sunbeams lately, and soon might snag a few more rays.

But the eclipses have been pretty profound as well.

Some baseball and softball meltdowns, not to mention a succession of men's basketball defections, have served as bleak bookends to the conference crowns captured by the men's and women's tennis teams Sunday afternoon. Perhaps 'bleak' is too mild a term. Consider:

* The softball team's five-inning, 17-1 loss Wednesday night at Florida was the worst in program history, which dates to 1985. The Bulls (33-14) hadn't surrendered that many runs to an opponent in more than eight years.

* The baseball team (22-18) lost two of three in a critical series at No. 12 Houston, relinquishing leads in the eighth inning of both defeats, before a 5-3 home loss Tuesday to Florida Gulf Coast.

* Freshman center John Egbunu, projected as the Bulls' 6-foot-10 cornerstone for seasons to come, was granted his release, becoming the fifth scholarship player to depart since Stan Heath's dismissal.

So we ask: Who had the roughest week -- Ken Eriksen (softball), Lelo Prado (baseball) or Orlando Antigua (men's hoops)?

And bear in mind, the sun will come out tomorrow.

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Egbunu granted release from USF

John Egbunu set a school freshman rebounding record and made the American Athletic Conference's All-Rookie Team.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

John Egbunu set a school freshman rebounding record and made the American Athletic Conference's All-Rookie Team.

USF 6-foot-10 C John Egbunu, who set a school freshman rebounding record and made the American Athletic Conference's All-Rookie Team, has been granted his release from the school.

The cornerstone of the Bulls' nationally-lauded 2013 signing class, Egbunu becomes the fifth scholarship player to exit since Coach Stan Heath's dismissal in mid-March. Walk-on Shemiye McLendon, who averaged nearly 20 minutes last season, also isn't expected back.

The school also announced the exit of G Javontae Hawkins, whose departure was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times on Saturday.

"We appreciate their contributions to our program and wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors," USF executive associate athletic director Barry Clements said in a three-paragraph news release.

Egbunu and Hawkins join F Zach LeDay, G Musa Abdul-Aleem and PG Josh Heath as the Bulls' departures. Counting incoming freshmen shooting guards Troy Holston and Dinero Mercurius, USF has eight players on scholarship -- five below the NCAA limit -- for the 2014-15 season. …

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Hoosiers opt out of USF series, will play FIU instead

The USF football team's two-game home-and-home series with Big Ten foe Indiana is off.

USF confirmed the Hoosiers have excercised their buyout option on the series, which was slated to begin in 2015 in Tampa and conclude the following year in Bloomington. The buyout will cost IU $500,000, USF athletic department spokesman Brian Siegrist said.

The news arrives the same day FIU announced it has agreed to a home-and-home series with the Hoosiers. The Panthers travel to Bloomington on Sept. 12, 2015 -- the same day the Bulls were to host IU.

The Bulls and Hoosiers agreed to the series in the 2006, with the games initially slated for 2009 and '11. They were postponed in part to allow USF to squeeze in a four-year series (2010-13) with Miami.

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Historic day for USF tennis

USF's men's tennis team celebrates its victory Sunday at Memphis in the American Athletic Conference tournament final.

Photo provided by Brad Vest

USF's men's tennis team celebrates its victory Sunday at Memphis in the American Athletic Conference tournament final.

The most glorious afternoon in USF tennis history didn't just materialize Sunday. It was formed by comebacks, fashioned by clutch singles efforts, even forged by some home-crowd raucousness.

By its end, the Bulls men's and women's teams had won their respective American Athletic
Conference tournaments, within a couple of hours and one time zone of each other. They join the men's soccer team as the school's inaugural American team champions.

We'd be remiss if we let the landmark day pass without reflecting on some of the highlights and historic footnotes:

* The conference title was the first for the men since 2009, and the women's first since '07. USF was a member of the Big East both those seasons.

* Bulls sophomore Roberto Cid, who finished the tournament 3-0 in singles matches and 1-0 in doubles play, was named the men's tournament's most outstanding player.

* Both teams toppled the No. 1 seed in Sunday's finals, with the No. 3-seeded women upsetting
Houston 4-2, and the second-seeded men eking out a 4-3 win against Memphis on the Tigers'
home court.

* The men's triumph came exactly one week after a 4-3 loss to the Tigers at the same site. Junior Oliver Pramming and freshman Sasha Gozun, USF's No. 2 and 3 singles players, respectively, avenged losses to the same players who had defeated them the prior Sunday.

* Both teams had to rally Sunday after dropping the doubles point.

* Trailing Rocio Martin 2-5 in the first-set tie-breaker of her No. 5 singles match, Bulls freshman Vera Bessonova rallied for a 7-6, 6-1 win to clinch the team championship.

* Among those watching the three-hour women's match at the USF Varsity Courts was President Judy Genshaft and former athletic director Doug Woolard.

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Bulls add Mercurius as 2 more depart

The roster overhaul at USF continued Saturday with the Bulls' new coaching staff adding a signee as two more letter winners departed.

Veteran guards Javontae Hawkins and Musa Abdul-Aleem have left the program, becoming the third and fourth players to depart since the dismissal of Coach Stan Heath in mid-March. Meantime, the school confirmed the signing of Faith Baptist guard Dinero Mercurius.
 
Hawkins, a rising junior from Flint, Mich., essentially confirmed his exit via Twitter on Saturday: Ppl try to keep you around, but they don't understand enough is enough. It's time for a new start

He appeared in 29 games last season, averaging 3.7 points with a career-high 15 in a home loss to Cincinnati. It was his only double-figure scoring effort of the year.

Abdul-Aleem, a rising senior from Atlanta, graduated in December with a degree in leadership studies. Counted on to provide a long-range threat last season, he missed 14 games for various reasons and struggled mightily from 3-point range (16-for-67).

When asked about Abdul-Aleem's struggles in early February, Heath said: "All mental, just all mental."

Hawkins and Abdul-Aleem join point guard Josh Heath -- Stan's son -- and power forward Zach LeDay on USF's departure list. With Mercurius and fall signee Troy Holston -- another shooting guard -- both on board, the Bulls' current roster now features nine scholarship players.

Mercurius, who signed at his Orlando home Thursday, joins Holston as incoming rookies projected to help the Bulls' 3-point shooting, which ranked last in Division I (25.8 percent) last season.

A native of The Bronx, he averaged 17 points -- including three games of 30 or more -- last season for Faith Baptist, a non-FHSAA program that plays a national independent schedule. From 2009-13, he played for Orlando University.

"I'm excited about both Troy and Dinero coming to USF," new Bulls coach Orlando Antigua said in a statement. "They are two great young men who are really long, active wings and can really shoot the ball and work extremely hard."

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Men's hoops notes: LeDay transferring

Tying up a few Friday loose ends:

USF sophomore F Zach LeDay announced early Friday evening via Twitter he's transferring, becoming the second Bulls underclassmen to depart since Coach Stan Heath's dismissal. LeDay's tweet:

Wanna thank god for blessing me in my learning experience at USF, but it is time 4 me to move on and continue my career else where #godbless

A physical, brawny (6-foot-7, 245 pounds) post presence from north Texas, LeDay started 16 games this past season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.6 boards.

His minutes (15 per game) diminished slightly from his freshman year (16.9) as frontcourt newcomers John Egbunu and Chris Perry evolved into American Athletic Conference All-Rookie team selections. It's unclear whether LeDay fit into the plans of the Bulls' new coaching staff, which has stressed its desire to increase tempo.

He joins PG Josh Heath, who has transferred to Georgia Tech, as the Bulls' departures. Presuming no one else moves on and Faith Baptist combo G Dinero Mercurius sends in his letter of intent, USF would appear to have one remaining available scholarship.

* USF still has made no official announcement regarding Mercurius, a 6-4 long-range specialist who averaged 17 points last winter. Mercurius signed his letter of intent Thursday night according to Faith Baptist coach Kenny Gillion.  

* The school released the salaries of its newest assistants. Rod Strickland will earn $175,000 next season, slightly more than Oliver Antigua ($155,000). Director of basketball operations Jerry McCullough will make $80,000.

Coach Orlando Antigua has a $700,000 staff salary pool for his first season. The remaining $290,000 will be used to pay a third assistant and perhaps one or two other staffers (i.e. video coordinator, administrative assistant). …

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Prep coach: Mercurius has signed with USF

Faith Baptist combo guard Dinero Mercurius, the final commitment of former USF coach Stan Heath, has signed his letter of intent with the Bulls, his prep-school coach said.

Faith Baptist coach Kenny Gillion, whose Brandon-based non-FHSAA program plays an independent national schedule, said Mercurius signed Thursday night at his Orlando home. USF had not announced the signing as of early Friday afternoon.

The NCAA's spring signing period began Wednesday.

Mercurius would become the latest in a succession of Eagles point guards to reach the Division I level, joining Kareem Canty (Marshall), Shawn Smith (Texas A&M), Deshaun Morman (Cincinnati) and Rasham Suarez (Southern Miss).

Mercurius' stats from this past season (17 ppg, six assists) were the best of any of them for a single year at FBC, Gillion said.

A senior at Orlando University in 2013, Mercurius (6-foot-4, 180 pounds) enrolled at Faith Baptist and reclassified for the Class of '14. His long-range touch addresses USF's most glaring need; the Bulls finished last in Division I in 3-point percentage last season.

 

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Baseball: Bulls embark on critical closing stretch

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

WILL VRAGOVIC I Times

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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