For nine nearly-flawless innings, USF junior Jimmy Herget and Houston counterpart Andrew Lantrip used their respective right arms to make the price of admission worthwhile to an announced crowd of 724 Friday.
But it was the ensuing free baseball that proved priceless for Bulls fans.
First baseman Buddy Putnam's one-out, bases-loaded single to right field in the bottom of the 11th clinched a 2-1 Bulls victory against the Cougars, pushing USF's lead in the American Athletic Conference to two games.
Putnam finished 3-for-3 with two walks, while Herget and Lantrip combined to strike out 24.
"No matter who won that game, that was a great college baseball game," Bulls coach Mark Kingston said. "Great pitching on both sides, great defense. I thought both teams managed the game well to get out of really tough situations. It was two really good teams that battled. We got one big clutch hit there at the end by Buddy."
Houston (27-15, 7-6) put runners in scoring position three times in the last five innings, only to watch the Bulls (28-14-1, 9-4) come up with a critical strikeout or defensive conversion.
With one out and runners at the corners in the seventh, Herget (nine IP, seven hits, 11 strikeouts) fielded an Ian Rice bunt and threw out speedster Corey Julks at home. In the eighth, he surrendered a leadoff triple to Kyle Survance, then retired three of the next four batters -- two on strikeouts -- to snuff out the threat.
Meantime, Lantrip (8 1/3 IP, six hits, 13 strikeouts) was equally mesmerizing. His lone blemish surfaced in the seventh, when he issued a leadoff single to Luke Borders and walk to Putnam two batters later. Borders ultimately scored on an Austin Lueck single up the middle, tying the score at 1-all.
Herget threw 118 pitches, nine fewer than Lantrip.
"I think it's two of the better guys in the country, I don't think there's any question," Kingston said. "Two polished guys with great stuff; really hard to get on either one's fastball. You've got to tip your hat to their guy. He was great and Jimmy was great tonight, too."
Former Steinbrenner High standout Kevin Merrell led off the 11th with a walk off Houston reliever Patrick Weigel, and moved to second when Levi Borders was hit by a pitch. Burly freshman left-hander Aaron Fletcher replaced Weigel, striking out Luke Borders before issuing a single to Luke Maglich.
That set the stage for Putnam, who sent an 0-2 pitch into shallow right and was mobbed by teammates immediately thereafter.
"There's nothing more fun that that, and that's the first (walk-off) I've ever hit," Putnam said. "It's a great feeling."...
Her personalized ESPY moment arrived in triplicate, on a crisp March afternoon.
In the span of a doubleheader sweep of Tulsa, USF senior Karla Claudio sent three Golden Hurricane pitches beyond the left centerfield fence. The first, with one out in the bottom of the seventh of Game One, was a game-tying grand slam. The second, a three-run shot, pulled USF to within a run in the fifth inning of Game Two.
The last, with two out and the score tied in the bottom of the seventh, ended the day. Claudio pumped her fists as she trotted toward home plate, smack into a sea of teammates.
"Oh my God, that day was crazy," said Claudio, who finished the doubleheader with nine RBIs. "Coach (Ken Eriksen) gave me the chance to hit that day after not hitting for I don't even know how many games. The fact he has that confidence in me that I'm able to hit...really helped me and I was having a lot of fun."
The celebration spilled over into Gator's Dockside, a continental-grub sports bar about a half-mile east of campus. That evening, the boneless wings couldn't arrive fast enough for the San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico native, who couldn't read a menu in English -- much less order off it -- only three years before.
But the language barrier had long since been conquered. So had the psychological one. At last, Claudio's approach to the game was as plain as the chipotle honey barbecue sauce on her fingers.
She was having fun.
"Last year it was my first year as a (Division I) player, I was thinking a lot," said Claudio, a longtime Puerto Rican national team member who spent her first two collegiate seasons at Santa Fe College.
"I just felt like I had to show everybody what I could do when I didn't really have to. ... Coach Ken recruited me for a reason, and I'm talented enough to compete at this level, and I think that's what I'm doing now. I'm just having a lot of fun."
These days, Claudio's enjoyment spans from the plate to pitching circle. Seven of her 10 hits -- she has only 44 official at-bats -- have been for extra bases. As the Bulls' primary closer, she owns a 2.90 ERA in 72.1 innings, with a nation-best seven saves.
"At some point in a four-year span, you're hoping they get that," Eriksen said of Claudio's think-less, enjoy-more approach.
"You're hoping they get it as soon as they can. But for her as a (junior college) player, if she got it before her senior year then we've won the battle. Just to be able to go out there and be comfortable, to play and then get good...she's found it. She found it early."
Finding her voice -- at least in this country -- was another matter.
She was discovered by Santa Fe coach Chris Ahern during Puerto Rican national team tryouts in Orlando. When she arrived at the Gainesville campus from San Lorenzo, a mountainous region roughly a half-hour from Puerto Rico's east coast, she knew only a handful of English phrases. Turned out, Ahern was fluent in Spanish and sympathetic to her plight.
To help expedite Claudio's grasp of English, Ahern wouldn't allow her to speak Spanish during practice. The ensuing ribbing she got was was laced with more affection than spite.
"When you get a pop-up you have to yell, 'ball.' ... "I said something like 'bowl' with a really strong accent and everybody started making fun of me," recalled Claudio, who had a juco All-America season (19-6, 1.07 ERA, 17 home runs) in 2013.
"And that's one other thing that really helped me a lot, people making fun of me and making sure that I was saying things the right way. ... And still, to this day, there are still some things I say that make no sense, and people laugh at me. But that's how I learn and I don't mind it."
Today, only a wisp of her original accent is detectable in conversation. Similarly, the anxiety of '14 -- when Claudio allowed 21 hits in as many innings and hit .216 -- mostly has vanished. Armed with a late-breaking cutter evolving into one of her better pitches, she has long since earned the confidence of Eriksen to work in the most tense moments.
Case in point: four solid relief innings (two hits, one earned run) in an early-season loss to top-ranked Florida, when the Bulls squandered the lead after Claudio's exit.
Last weekend against East Carolina, she was inserted in the sixth inning of a 1-all game. Two innings later, she had fanned four, walked none and allowed an earned run on two hits. USF prevailed, 3-2.
Again, Claudio was clutch. No translation necessary.
"I'm not thinking about anything," she said. "My teammates trust me and that's really the important thing."
USF freshman combo guard Dinero Mercurius, initially recruited by former coach Stan Heath but signed by Orlando Antigua, has become the latest Bull to announce he's transferring.
Recruited in part to provide another long-range dimension, Mercurius hit only eight of 39 3-pointers (20.5 percent) in his lone season, averaging fewer than 14 minutes. He becomes the third Bulls player with remaining eligibility to depart since the end of the season, joining point guard Anthony Collins and power forward Dre Clayton.
The current USF roster features seven players who logged game action last season. The number doesn't include former Maryland point guard Roddy Peters, who practiced but sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. It increases to eight if former Louisville/Gonzaga F Angel Nunez's transfer to USF is approved by the NCAA.
Makeover at the Muma Center
A look at USF's 2014-15 men's basketball roster, and the projected one for '15-16
F Dre Clayton R-Fr. F Chris Perry Jr.
F Chris Perry So. PG Roddy Peters So.
PG Roddy Peters So.* PF Tulio Da Silva Fr.
G Corey Allen Jr. Sr. G/F Nehemias Morillo Sr.
G/F Nehemias Morillo Jr. G Jake Bodway R-So.
PG Anthony Collins Jr. G Jahmal McMurray Fr.
G Jake Bodway R-Fr. F Luis Santos Fr.
G Justin David So.* G Justin David So.
C Jaleel Cousins Jr. C Jaleel Cousins Sr.
G Troy Holston Jr. Fr. G Troy Holston Jr. So.
C Ruben Guerrero Fr. C Ruben Guerrero So.
G Dinero Mercurius Fr. F Bo Zeigler R-So.
F Bo Zeigler R-Fr. G Shawn Smith Jr.
F Angel Nunez Sr.^
*-Ineligible due to NCAA transfer rules
^-Transfer is pending NCAA approval...
Former USF athletic director Doug Woolard, who received more than $1 million from the school upon his departure last summer, could earn up to $50,000 more this year in his temporary gig at his alma mater.
The professional services contract Woolard signed in January with SIU Carbondale was provided to the Tampa Bay Times upon a public-records request. Under terms of the contract, which ends June 30, Woolard earns $100 an hour (excluding travel time) and can make up to $49,999.99.
Among his duties: exploring revenue enhancements and cost controls; representing the school in Missouri Valley Conference negotiations on a pending digital content and production contract; and providing insight and advice to the school's interim AD and other administrators on "strategic and emerging issues related to intercollegiate athletics" as a new AD is sought.
Upon Woolard's retirement announcement from USF in January 2014, USF officials indicated he'd remain on board in behind-the-scenes capacities until his contract expired in June 2015....
It remains in sole possession of first place in the American Athletic Conference, and its home run rate keeps climbing with the humidity. Its pitchers are producing strikeouts the way the Reds' manager produces expletives.
Normally, these would be among the brightest days USF baseball (26-14-1) has experienced in at least two years, if not for the somber forecast.
Tragedy has changed speeds on the Bulls lately, arriving with excruciating deliberation in one case and knee-buckling dispatch in another....
Gonzaga transfer Angel Nunez, a 6-foot-8 senior forward who visited USF over the weekend, reportedly has given his commitment to the Bulls.
ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported Monday afternoon that Nunez, a 23-year-old New York City native who began his college career at Louisville, has chosen USF. The Tampa Bay Times reported his weekend visit Sunday.
If he graduates this spring as expected, Nunez would be eligible for his final season immediately, pending a review by the NCAA. Prompting the review is the fact this would be Nunez's second transfer....
Roughly eight years before the greatest Sunday in Buccaneers lore unfolded on a warm West Coast afternoon, the greatest Saturday played out in a Madison Square Garden theater.
Exactly no one fully appreciated the impact of the moment, nor the prosperity it ultimately would yield.
On that day, 20 years ago on April 22, two of the franchise's three Hall of Famers — Warren Sapp (12th pick) and Derrick Brooks (28th) — were taken in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft. It remains only the second time a pair of Hall of Famers was picked by the same team in the same round, affording it legendary status over time....
The USF basketball team's second consecutive offseason roster makeover took a potentially significant stride over the weekend with two transfers from prominent programs making visits.
Six-foot-8 senior F Angel Nunez (Gonzaga) and 6-2 redshirt freshman G Deandre Burnett (Miami) were among those visiting Coach Orlando Antigua's program. Nunez, a New York City native who averaged 6.3 minutes in 28 games this past season, is set to graduate this spring and therefore would be immediately eligible.
Burnett, a former Parade All-American from Miami Carol City, likely would have to sit out a season. He averaged seven points and more than 17 minutes this past season for the Hurricanes, who reached the NIT finals.
Nunez began his college career at Louisville, playing sparingly as a freshman before sitting out the first 10 games of his sophomore season with a concussion. He transferred to Gonzaga midway through that season and became eligible for the Bulldogs in December 2013. He ultimately was granted a medical hardship waiver for the 2012-13 season.
The Bulls, who entered last season with only three players with prior Division I experience, already have lost two of them this offseason. Senior G Corey Allen Jr.'s eligibility expired, and veteran PG Anthony Collins departed in a "mutual understanding" with Antigua....
The USF men's tennis team earned its second consecutive American Athletic Conference tournament crown Sunday, dispatching Tulsa 4-0 in the championship match on the Golden Hurricane's home court.
Senior Oliver Pramming, named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, clinched the crown for the No. 21 Bulls with a straight-sets victory against 80th-ranked Alejandro Espejo at No. 2 singles....
No fewer than three continents will be represented on the USF women's basketball roster next season.
Coach Jose Fernandez's sprawling international recruiting net widened a bit more Friday with the school's announcement it has signed 6-foot-3 Kenya native Nancy Warioba, who spent the past two seasons at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. She'll join Latvian 3-point specialist Kitija Laksa, whose arrival previously was reported by the Times, in the Bulls' spring signing class.
Fernandez, who lost only four players from last season's 27-8 NCAA Tournament squad, still has two scholarships to give. Of the 13 players on scholarship (including the latest signees), only six are from the United States. Six are from Europe.
Laksa and Warioba are immediately eligible. As a sophomore at Blinn, Warioba averaged 10.8 points and 10.2 rebounds in only 23 minutes, earning NCJAA All-Region XIV honors. Blinn finished 20-11.
"Nancy improved a lot from the beginning of the year to the end," Blinn coach Jeff Jenkins told the program's official website. "She will only get better in her next two years of basketball."
The Bulls return all five starters, and seven of their top eight scorers, from last season's team. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme has them 21st in his initial 2015-16 preseason rankings....
Ten former bay area prep standouts would be starting for USF if the season began today, according to the latest depth chart posted on the Bulls' official site
The chart clearly has been updated to reflect some breakthroughs and departures, and could be revised again shortly. USF indicated Thursday afternoon another update is forthcoming....
Typically, the crowds and conference implications are minimal. Mid-week game in mid-April? Not normally must-see college softball.
But Wednesday night's proceedings in Gainesville could possess the vibe of a regional, or at the least, a revenge game.
In a sport that demands short memories due to the volume of games per week, USF boards a bus for the University of Florida with its most excruciating loss of the season still vivid in its collective psyche.
"I still, in my head, say we won because we did have them beat," 2B Kristen Wyckoff said.
It sure seemed that way. On a crisp early-February evening at USF Softball Stadium, the Bulls entered the seventh inning with a two-run lead on the top-ranked Gators. But a would-be historic conquest regressed into a historic collapse.
UF scored eight runs in the top of the seventh, sending 13 batters to the plate. By inning's end, USF had used three pitchers, walked five, committed two errors, hit one batter and allowed two home runs.
Final: Gators 10, Bulls 5. Tonight, Florida, which has won the last seven meetings, still is ranked first (at least in the ESPN.com/USA Today poll), and USF (32-12) still is seething.
"I get really mad every time we lose to them because we really have the talent to beat them, and we're just as good or maybe better," said senior RHP Karla Claudio, who worked four solid relief innings in the first meeting before issuing a leadoff walk in the seventh and being replaced.
"We want to beat them really bad and I told my teammates I wasn't gonna leave USF without beating them first."
First pitch is at 6 p.m. Online broadcast information can be found here.
The common presumption is, USF's resident softball savant is out-thinking himself again. What other coach worth his sunscreen employs a full-fledged pitching staff — closer included — more befitting baseball?
Clearly, Ken Eriksen again is thinking outside the circle, some suggest. Or is he?
Laud or lament Eriksen's use of three starters — sometimes four — in the wake of three-time All-American Sara Nevins' graduation. Bottom line is, the Bulls' veteran coach hardly is blazing new ground in this season of transition. To the contrary, he's traversing a familiar footpath....
They brandished neither bats nor brooms Sunday. Held to five hits by a quartet of East Carolina pitchers, USF fell 6-0 to the Pirates, missing the chance to sweep another American Athletic Conference foe at home.
"They played better than us today," first-year Bulls coach Mark Kingston said.
Rarely has Kingston been forced to make such an acknowledgement lately. If any team warranted a mulligan on this Masters Sunday, it likely was the most surprising team on campus.
Two months into the season, USF (24-12-1, 7-2 American Athletic Conference) remains in sole possession of first place in the AAC. Sunday's loss snapped a 14-game home win streak dating to March 1. In one-run games, the Bulls are 8-0.
Their 24 home runs are nearly triple their 2014 total (nine).
"Guys are a year stronger, guys are a year wiser," Kingston said. "Teams get better as they get older, so I don't think we're any different."
Players insists the reasons for the resurgence -- USF was 27-31 last season -- go much deeper. They laud the efforts of strength and conditioning coach Joey Carnes. They speak of a tougher mental approach, and more commitment in the film room.
A veteran pitching staff, spearheaded by veteran No. 1 and 2 starters Jimmy Herget (6-1, 2.65 ERA) and Casey Mulholland (4-4, 2.72), doesn't hurt either.
"Our mental approach, the mental game, we're a hundred times wiser than we were in the past," said Bulls home runs leader Buddy Putnam (seven), now roughly 205 pounds after adding more than 25 in the offseason. "And not only that, but we're more aggressive and with that comes a little bit more fun.
"We're having a blast out here, and with that comes a lot better baseball."
Better than most would've imagined at this stage.
Exactly two weeks after being the third USF quarterback to take a snap in the Bulls' spring game, Mike White announced Saturday he's leaving Willie Taggart's program for Taggart's alma mater.
White, who started 15 games the past two seasons for the Bulls, announced he's transferring to Western Kentucky, where he's visiting this weekend. He'll have to sit out the 2015 season per NCAA transfer rules, and will have two years' eligibility remaining.
"After taking a visit and talking to the coaches I feel like it's a really good fit for me," White said in a text message to the Tampa Bay Times.
White, who passed for more than 2,700 yards with 11 TDs and 16 interceptions at USF, said he spoke extensively with Hilltoppers coach Jeff Brohm and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton upon getting his release from USF.
The Hilltoppers run a high-octane, no-huddle offense that averaged 534.6 yards last season, resulting in an 8-5 record and Bahamas Bowl triumph. Western Kentucky QB Brandon Doughty, a Davie native who threw for 49 TDs last season, has one season of eligibility remaining....