TAMPA — On baseball merit alone, USF junior Alex Mendez is one of the best stories in the Bulls' resurgence, versatile enough to lead his team in RBIs as a leadoff hitter in his first season as an everyday starter.
With Mendez as a catalyst, the Bulls have gone from missing the Big East tournament to finishing one game out of first place. And as the league tournament starts today at Bright House Field in Clearwater, he has high hopes for a conference crown and USF's first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years.
"We really do have a chance to make a statement and really send USF baseball in the right direction," said Mendez, preparing for the Bulls' opener at 8 tonight against Connecticut. "It's exciting just to be a part of it."
But there's much more to Mendez, 22, than baseball — he's in his third year as president of USF's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and is the Big East's representative on the NCAA's SAAC, playing a role in representing athletes' opinions as policies are shaped.
"It's been a great, great experience, being able to be the voice of not only the student-athletes in the Big East conference, but all the student-athletes around the nation with the other reps," he said.
At a national SAAC meeting in Indianapolis, Mendez learned of an outreach group called Samaritan's Feet, which aims to donate 10 million pairs of shoes to those in need over a 10-year span. Mendez mobilized USF's athletes as volunteers and raised enough money for 220 pairs to be donated through the Tampa chapter of Metropolitan Ministries last month. As part of the program, volunteers wash the feet of the recipients, an act that makes the gesture more personal. It's been one of the best success stories in USF's new "Enhancing U" program, which helps athletes get into community outreach projects.
"He's a natural-born leader, and pretty unbelievable in that aspect," said Jodie Heinicka, USF's assistant athletic director for academics and student-athlete development, who oversees the overall program. "Because we're in Year 1 of our program, people's ears are perked up a little. Their antennas are on for events that sound like they'd be fun to be a part of. He knocked one of out of the park for us."
Coach Lelo Prado likes the underdog mentality of the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Mendez who, at Orlando Bishop Moore High, had a leadoff home run and got the win on the mound in a 2007 state championship game. After two seasons as a part-time starter at USF, Mendez has thrived this season, leading the team with a .321 batting average in conference play, as well as team highs in runs (20), doubles (7) and total bases (45). He's tied for the team lead in RBIs with 29, more than his first two seasons combined.
"He's what I love in a baseball player. I'm just happy he's had a good year, because he's the kind of young man we want in our program," Prado said. "He's represented USF and himself and our program in the right fashion. We're fortunate to have him."
Mendez is due to graduate next year with a double major in biomedical sciences and business management, with plans to attend medical school. For now, he's enjoying baseball and his role in getting USF back to a higher level.
"I'm unbelievably confident in our team," Mendez said. "We have an incredible team and an incredible coaching staff. We can compete with any team in the nation, and I really think if we come out and show that, the sky's the limit for us."
For information on the Samaritan's Feet project, visit their website at samaritansfeet.org.
. fast facts
Big East baseball tournament
When/where: Today-Sunday, Bright House Field, Clearwater.
Tickets: One-day pass $8, all-week pass $32; students/seniors/children/military $16 for week, $6 for daily.
TV: Sunday championship on ESPNU.
Format: Double elimination.
Today: No. 3 seed Seton Hall vs. No. 6 Rutgers, 10 a.m.; No. 2 St. John's vs. No. 7 Notre Dame; No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 8 Pittsburgh, 5 p.m.; No. 4 USF vs. No. 5 Connecticut, 8 p.m.