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USF Bulls baseball finds success amid grief

 
Published April 22, 2015

TAMPA

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.

"It obviously weighs on us," senior SS Kyle Teaf said.

First, the one they've seen coming: 11-year-old honorary team captain Nick Wolf, who twice fought brain cancer into remission, is in the waning stages of his latest battle with the disease, which returned just before Christmas. Nick lost consciousness 10 days ago and remains under 24-hour hospice care, his mom reported via Twitter.

Before that, he was a frequent spectator at Bulls games, hooking up with the team through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which helps improve the lives of children with pediatric brain tumors.

"He's done more for not only me but this team than we could ever hope to do for him through the Friends of Jaclyn," said Teaf, who with teammate Nik Alfonso visited Nick at his New Tampa home two Sundays ago. "He's really been the one who has treated us in the end."

By contrast, Bulls coaches were afforded no time to brace themselves for their own anguish.

First-year coach Mark Kingston and assistants Billy Mohl and Mike Current — all of whom arrived last summer from Illinois State — have been among those grieving the deaths of seven members of the ISU athletics family.

All seven perished when the twin-engine plane they were traveling in crashed a few miles from the ISU campus while returning from the men's Final Four in Indianapolis. Among those lost: ISU associate head men's basketball coach Torrey Ward and deputy athletic director Aaron Leetch, who served as Kingston's baseball administrator in the coach's final season with the Redbirds.

"That town right now, they're struggling," Kingston said recently. "They lost seven different people, and they were all people that did stuff for the school. Popular people."

Against the backdrop of grief and grim prognoses, the Bulls' resurgence has barely waned. Entering tonight's home game against Bethune-Cookman, they possess a sparkling RPI (21st) and can equal last season's victory total with a triumph against the Wildcats.

"I think (the adversity) brings us together," Teaf said. "And when we get out on the field, whether we're at practice or during the game, (baseball) is kind of an escape for us. It's something that gets us away from reality, gives us a break from anything we're dealing with, whatever it may be."

That solidarity will be fortified this weekend. The Bulls will raise money and awareness for children's cancer research by having their heads shaved at the end of Sunday afternoon's home game against Houston. Funds raised — to date, the Bulls have generated nearly $13,000 — will be split between the Vs. Cancer Foundation and Tampa General Children's Hospital.

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"We're with each other," Teaf said. "That's really what I've drawn on and I'm sure the coaches have, too. We just have a very strong support system and this team is something special."

POSTSEASON TEES OFF: The men's golf team, ranked 18th by Golfweek, seeks its second league title in three seasons at the AAC Championship beginning Sunday in Lecanto. The Bulls earned their second team title of the calendar year at the recent Irish Creek Collegiate in North Carolina, with sophomore Rigel Fernandes (5 under) tying for low-medalist honors in the 54-hole event.

USF's women finished fourth at their three-day league tournament that concluded Tuesday in Palm Coast. Sophomore Ashley Burke had the Bulls' top individual finish, shooting 3 over to tie for 10th.

ODDS AND ENDS: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines staff will appear at USF's one-day football camp, open to students entering grades 9-12, on June 6. For information, go to usffootballcamps.com. … To the surprise of no one, junior SG Courtney Williams was named Offensive MVP and PF Alisia Jenkins the Defensive MVP at the USF women's basketball awards banquet Sunday evening at the Columbia Restaurant. … Speaking of women's hoops, coach Jose Fernandez still has at least two scholarships to give following the recent signings of 3-point specialist Kitija Laksa of Latvia and 6-foot-3 juco transfer Nancy Warioba of Kenya.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.