Sunday, April 22, 2018
Sports

USF baseball team vows to make tourney

TAMPA

He doesn't wait for the reporters huddled around him to subtly segue into questions about the level of urgency within his program. Lelo Prado always has been far more direct than diplomatic.

So when he's initially tossed a few benign queries (about sophomore ace Jimmy Herget's progress, his team's style of play, etc.), USF's eighth-year baseball coach voluntarily digresses to the meat of the matter.

"I told my players, it's time for this program to get to a (NCAA) regional and compete for conference championships," Prado said. "We've got a beautiful facility, we've got good players and can't accept anything less than that. We've got to raise the bar here."

Such is the Bulls' prevailing mantra in this pivotal season. The gauntlet has been thrown well in advance of the first pitch. Approaching the doorstep of postseason play no longer will suffice.

The Bulls, armed with the most pitching and pop of the Prado era, must cross the threshold.

"We're going to regionals no matter what," senior left-handed closer Lawrence Pardo said. "Guarantee."

The ramifications of anything less are clear. Prado, who has five 30-win seasons but no regional berths at USF, is entering the last year of his contract and likely will have a new athletic director by season's end.

Yet his voice contains more conviction than desperation when discussing his 2014 club. The regional-or-bust refrain is far more realistic expectation than last-gasp motivational ploy.

"It's setting the bar high and we know that it's a goal that's attainable," 2B Nik Alfonso said of the program's first NCAA berth since 2002. "And we think we can get there. By Coach saying that day in and day out, it puts it in our heads and we believe it."

There are 15 players with at least two years of college experience. Three of last season's four .300 hitters are gone, but Prado returns six players who started at least 20 games, including middle infielders Alfonso and SS Kyle Teaf.

Meantime, Herget, the reigning Big East rookie of the year (6-2, 1.72 ERA, 94 IP) has added weight (he's now 165 pounds) and a changeup, and Pardo anchors what projects as a solid bullpen.

Prado also is high on a freshman class that should add offensive spark and mound depth.

"They're good enough, it's just a matter of getting over the hump and finishing the job," said Prado, whose club opens Friday night at home against Maryland Eastern Shore. "You're going to see a bigger, stronger team than I've ever had here. You're going to see a deeper pitching staff than I've ever had here, and hopefully that pays off for us at the end."

VOLS BECKON FOR BULLS: The Bulls softball team (1-2) plays its third top-four foe at 4 p.m. Saturday, facing top-ranked Tennessee as part of the USF Tournament.

After falling 10-3 to No. 3 Florida in Thursday's opener, the Bulls took a one-run lead into the sixth Saturday against fourth-ranked Michigan but lost 3-2.

Caitlin Blanchard's two-run bases-loaded single in the sixth was the difference. Though left-handed ace Sara Nevins has struggled (0-2, 12 IP, 12 walks), the Bulls are hitting .288 with four home runs in three contests.

Last season, USF got its fourth homer in Game 17.

BULL BITS: Linebackers coach Raymond Woodie, whose efforts in southwest Florida were integral in helping the Bulls land the consensus No. 1-ranked signing class in the American Athletic Conference, recently was named the league's top recruiter by 247Sports and Rivals. … The men's tennis team improved to 5-0 with Sunday's 5-2 victory at Miami. Roberto Cid, Sasha Gozun and Oliver Pramming earned three-set singles victories. Cid, 4-0 in matches last week, was named conference player of the week on Tuesday. … Men's basketball coach Stan Heath, who has one scholarship to give in the upcoming spring signing period, said he intends to sign one (and possibly two) players.

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