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As 2020 season dawns, USF baseball bent on atoning for 2019

The Bulls, who failed to qualify for last year’s AAC tournament, open the new season at home Friday.
Bishop McLaughlin alumnus Carson Ragsdale, a clutch reliever for USF two seasons ago, returns after missing a season due to Tommy John surgery. [USF Athletics]

TAMPA ― Nine months after its 2019 season ended in embarrassment, the USF baseball team’s quest for redemption begins in earnest Friday.

Replenished by an assortment of promising young arms (on the mound and in the outfield), the Bulls open the ’20 season at home Friday against Marist in the first of a three-game series. Chances are, it will end more favorably than their last series in the same park, when they dropped two of three to Wichita State and failed to earn the final spot in the eight-team American Athletic Conference tournament.

“I think hungry is an understatement,” junior catcher (and Durant High alumnus) Jake Sullivan said.

Here are three things to know (and at least one thing we still don’t know) about the ’20 brand of Bulls heading into Friday’s opener:

1. Mohl’s make-or-break year

Conventional wisdom indicates USF baseball coach Billy Mohl, whose team finished 26-27 last season, must show marked improvement in Year Three to secure a Year 4.

In his 19½ months on the job, USF athletic director Michael Kelly has shown little tolerance for mediocrity (see football, volleyball, track and field), which suggests third-year coach Billy Mohl can ill afford a ’19 sequel.

Even with an injury-decimated pitching staff, a 26-27 record and ninth-place AAC finish simply isn’t acceptable for a program nestled in arguably the nation’s most fertile recruiting soil.

“Look, we all remember that Saturday in May last year where our season came to an end,” Mohl said.

“Most of these guys were on that team in ’18 when we were the (No.) 2 seed (in the DeLand Regional), a couple of spots away from hosting. The expectation of this program is to get to a regional every single year, break through to the supers and get to Omaha.”

2. Young arms aplenty

Senior Collin Sullivan, USF's opening-night starter in 2019, pitched a team-high 81.2 innings for the Bulls last season. [USF Athletics]

Mohl’s refurbished pitching staff features nine newcomers, including six freshmen. Among the rookies who appear in line for immediate mound work are Springstead right-hander Jack Jasiak, who struck out 250 in 163 career innings for the Eagles.

Which isn’t to suggest the Bulls staff will be as green as the trim on their home uniforms.

Senior right-hander Collin Sullivan, last year’s opening night starter, returns after a respectable junior year (4-5, 3.86 ERA, 81.2 IP). Also back is 6-foot-8 righty Carson Ragsdale, a Bishop McLaughlin alumnus who sat out the 2019 season following Tommy John surgery, but sparkled in 16 relief appearances (21.1 IP, 24 strikeouts, 3.38 ERA) in 2018.

Related: Hottest ticket in college softball? It's the St. Pete/Clearwater Invitational

3. A Spartan in center

Don’t be surprised if freshman Dontae Mitchell, a starter and honor student all four years at Lakewood, starts at centerfield Friday night. Mitchell, who stole 35 bases as a Spartans junior, recently was named preseason AAC Freshman of the Year by Perfect Game USA.

He’ll likely be flanked by senior Austin Bodrato. Two other rookies, Daniel Cantu and Carmine Lane, appear to be vying for the left field job.

4. Who will provide the pop?

Great question. Of USF’s eight returning position players, Sullivan and second baseman Jordan Santos had the most home runs last year (four each).

Cantu (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) and Riverview High alumnus Dillon Besnier possess power, and Mitchell appears to be a five-tool talent in the making. Don’t be shocked if Bodrato (6-1, 212) breaks through after a modest ’19 season (.234, three home runs, 20 RBIs).