USF sports: 2016-17 in review
With the Bulls baseball team's elimination Sunday from the NCAA Tournament, the curtain formally fell on another USF sports season. Until football fires up, the Bulls-centric sports options are limited: Fans can follow recruiting (Charlie Strong's first camps are slated for this weekend), speculate wildly on the non-conference men's basketball schedule, stage an organized protest of the 4 p.m. start time for the Sept. 2 football home opener, or lobby for baseball coach Mark
Kingston to get a raise.
If none of those provide your USF athletics fix, well, we suggest re-reading our 2016-17 year in review, or devising your own similar list.
Without further ado...
Team of the Year
Though it fell short of its ultimate aspiration (a first conference title), the football team nonetheless staged an historic autumn. By its breathtaking end (an overtime win in the Birmingham Bowl), the Bulls had set program season records for victories (11), points (569), touchdowns (77), total yards (6,650) and rushing yards (3,714). Now, Quinton Flowers and Co. will try to deliver an even more astounding encore, which leads us to...
Male Athlete of the Year
The easiest call on this list. In his second full season as USF's starter, Flowers posted Madden-esque numbers (school-record 4,337 total yards, 42 total TDs), led the Bulls to an 11-2 season, earned American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors, and thrust himself into the 2017 Heisman dialogue. Amid that historic run, Flowers allowed himself a brief interlude -- to become a dad. We have no idea how he'll top all that in '17, but we put nothing past him.
Female Athlete of the Year
No fewer than four women's basketball players could make a rightful claim to this honor, making this the toughest choice on our list. Sophomore Kitija Laksa may have been the most potent offensive weapon, and the breakthrough seasons of rangy veterans Ari Pujol and Maria Jespersen can't be ignored, but no one brandished more fortitude on a nightly basis than PG Laia Flores. When assorted injuries left Flores as the Bulls' only available point guard, the 5-foot-7 Spain native grimaced her way through the season's final six weeks on a sprained right ankle. For the year, Flores averaged a team-best 36.8 minutes, and set a program season record with 200 assists.
Male Single-Game Performance of the Year
Though we could choose from at least a half-dozen Flowers performances, we're opting for the gutsy -- and gut-tugging -- one delivered last month by RHP Peter Strzelecki. Seven days after his father's funeral, the fourth-year junior struck out a career-best 10 batters over 8 1/3 innings in a 6-3 victory against East Carolina. By the time he exited (looking skyward as he walked to the dugout), Strzelecki had thrown 120 pitches, allowing one earned run on three hits. In an interview after the game, Coach Mark Kingston didn't remove his shades for fear of revealing tears. "That's as good as I've ever seen him," Kingston said.
Female Single-Game Performance of the Year
Freshman Evelyne Viens recorded the women's soccer team's first hat trick in a decade in a 6-0 rout of Jacksonville in early September, highlighting a season in which she'd be named AAC Rookie of the Year. Two of Viens' three goals came in the match's first 24 minutes.
Cameo of the Year
For the first time since her chordoma cancer diagnosis the previous spring, Bulls junior softball player Meredith Bissette suited up for an April 8 home game against East Carolina. Penciled in as the starting designated player, Bissette -- still battling the disease while taking classes -- was replaced by a pinch-hitter before her first at-bat and got a standing ovation. "It's kind of overwhelming, it's like tears coming down," said Bissette's mother, Marlene. "Just to see her back and have some kind of normalcy, this is where we wanted to get to."
Performance of the Year No One Saw
The seventh-seeded women's tennis team (15-11) staged a stunning four-day run through the AAC tournament in Orlando, upsetting top-seeded Tulsa 4-2 in the title match. On successive days, the Bulls topped the 10th, second, third and first seeds to earn the program's first NCAA bid in three years.
Trailing UCLA by three with 33.9 seconds to go in the NCAA Tournament's second round, fifth-year Bulls senior Shalethia Stringfield -- trying to save the ball from going out of bounds under UCLA's basket -- made a one-handed flick that clearly bounced off the hand of Bruins F Lajahna Drummer. Even after a lengthy review, officials gave the ball to the Bruins, who held on for a 72-67 win. WAIT A MINUTE, you say, that was TWO seasons ago. Yeah, the call was so botched we're giving it this distinction two years in a row.
By athletic director Mark Harlan, for going all-in on Charlie Strong during his whirlwind pursuit of a football coach. Harlan made a beeline for Strong once Willie Taggart took the Oregon job, announcing the former Texas coach's hiring only four days after Taggart bolted for OU. What's more, Harlan helped draft a heavily-backloaded five-year contract for Strong that ensures he'll get most of his buyout money from UT while minimizing USF's financial obligation initially.
Most Bizarre Story
We'd call the men's basketball season an altogether forgettable one, if not for a solitary incident likely to be remembered for some time. The morning after a late-February loss at Tulsa, veteran guards Geno Thorpe and Troy Holston Jr. joined the team for the commercial flight home, but missed the connection in Houston. Initial reports indicated the players fell asleep at the connecting gate and were left behind (accompanied by Holston's mother publicly blasting the program), though flight details later seemed to rebut that version. At any rate, the fact USF was forced to fly commercial represents this program's sagging fortune and revenues.
Sound Bite of the Year
"You always hear people talk about us being a sleeping giant. It's not just the football team that's sleeping. Everybody's got to wake up and become that giant and make it what we know it can be." -- former football coach Willie Taggart, trying to coax some in-person support out of his fan base. (It should be noted Taggart no longer has that problem at his new job.)
Predictions for 2017-18
Football team defeats Houston in AAC title game at Raymond James Stadium. ... Charlie Strong mentioned as a candidate for vacant jobs at Notre Dame and UCLA, among other places. ... Baseball coach Mark Kingston receives a significant raise and contract extension. ... Sun Dome secures a corporate sponsor -- and a new name -- by summer's end. ... Women's basketball team earns fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. ... NCAA adds no sanctions to the ones the school has self-imposed on its men's basketball team, which ekes out a dozen wins in Coach Brian Gregory's first season.