Bigger, Better Bulls Set for 2017 Season Opener
OPENING SERIES OPPONENT: Iowa (30-26 in 2016)
SERIES SCHEDULE: 6:30 p.m. Friday; 6:30 p.m. Saturday; noon Sunday
LOCATION: USF Baseball Stadium, Tampa
TWITTER UPDATES: @USFBaseball
By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA, FEB. 16, 2017 – USF baseball got better in all aspects of the game this offseason and the motivated Bulls finally get to prove it this weekend.
USF opens the 2017 season with a three-game home series against Iowa that begins 6:30 p.m. Friday at Red McEwen Field. Saturday's game is set for 6:30 p.m. and the series finale begins Sunday at noon.
“I’m just anxious to see the improvement of our players from this fall and from last year,” head coach Mark Kingston said. “We have a big group of players that have made good strides. I’m anxious to see how that looks in real game situations.”
Bulls brimming with potential include much of USF’s 2016 signing class that ranked in the top 10 nationally. Plagued with injuries throughout last season, USF was forced to play seven freshmen in the lineup at times.
“Those kids are starting to grow up. A lot of them were thrown into the fire last year,” Kingston said. “Most of the time they were just trying to keep their heads above water. This is such a high level of baseball, such a big jump from high school to play at an elite, Division-I level.”
After gaining valuable experience, many young Bulls took their game to another level during the summer. Catcher Joe Genord (Lake Worth, Fla.) was named Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League Player of the Year. Left-hander Garrett Bye (Riverview, Fla.) combined efforts with Genord to help the Amsterdam Mohawks win the PGCBL Championship. Take a look back at USF’s summer ball recap HERE.
“They’re a little bigger, they’re a little stronger, they’re a little smarter and they’re a little faster,” said Kingston of his team. “I’m encouraged by our progress so far.”
Senior right-hander Phoenix Sanders (Gainesville) returns to USF’s Friday night starting role after going 5-5 last season with a 4.15 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 95.1 innings.
“We think Phoenix can take that next step. He had a solid year last year, but we think he can be better,” Kingston said. “I think we’ll have a good defense behind him and I think we’ll score some more runs. I think what will happen is we won’t have to ask him to do so much, whether it’s number of innings, number of pitches. We’ll be able to manage his workload better, so I think that will set him up to have much more long-term success over the course of the season.”
Freshman left-hander Shane McClanahan (Cape Coral, Fla.) will get the ball on Saturday night. The 2015 all-state selection finished his stellar high school career with a career record of 29-7, a 1.02 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 123 innings. McClanahan redshirted last season while recovering from an injury.
“He’s as talented as anyone in the country,” Kingston said. “His fastball is up to 96, 97 and will sit 92-94. He’s a supreme talent and has a chance to be a very high draft pick in a couple years.”
Junior right-hander Peter Strzelecki (Lake Worth, Fla.) will make his USF debut as the Sunday starter after posting 33 strikeouts in 28 innings for Palm Beach State College in 2015. Like McClanahan, Strzelecki had to redshirt last season because of an injury.
“We’re anxious to see him against outside competition. He’s a talented kid, but he’s unproven at this level,” Kingston said. “He’s pitched well this spring for us in intersquad games. He’ll be a guy that’s 89-91 with good off-speed pitches. It’s just a matter of getting him back out there.”
Redshirt senior right-hander Ryan Valdes (Tampa) has been tabbed as USF’s Tuesday night starter after missing the majority of last season with an injury. As a junior in 2015, the former Alonso High School standout went 5-4 with a 3.47 ERA in 11 starts after playing two seasons at State College of Florida.
“We will be closely monitoring his pitch counts early on,” Kingston said. “But as we know from two years ago, he was a weekend starter for an NCAA Regional team.”
- Junior Kevin Merrell (Odessa, Fla.) moves over from second to take on USF’s starting role at shortstop. Sophomore Coco Montes (Miami) will take Merrell’s spot at second. “Past that, our fans will see a lot of familiar faces, but hopefully better versions of what they saw last year,” Kingston said. “Our outfield has gotten better and made good strides. Our infield group looks better defensively and swinging the bat.”
- Kingston said a big key to the season will be the catching situation with senior Levi Borders (Winter Haven, Fla.) still not available. Joe Genord (Lake Worth, Fla.), Tyler Dietrich (Naples, Fla.), Andres Leal (Tampa) and Jordan Santos (Tampa) all have gotten reps behind the plate in scrimmages this spring. “At this point, we’ll probably start with Genord and Dietrich getting the reps,” Kingston said. “Genord will also be at first base some. I think all those guys, at some point, will have an opportunity to get a look.”
- USF’s pitching staff has totaled 500 or more strikeouts in each of the past two seasons, which is a program record. USF’s 517 strikeouts last season were the second-most in program history. USF’s 1995 team still holds the school record with 546 strikeouts.
Know the Opponent
- Heading into his 30th season, Iowa's Rick Heller needs eight wins to reach 800 as a head coach. Heller is 101-67 at Iowa and he’s the first coach to lead the Hawkeyes to the postseason in each of his first three seasons.
“Rick Heller and I go way back. We used to coach against each other when he was at Indiana State and I was at Illinois State,” Kingston said. “His teams will be well-coached, they will be aggressive. They have a very good pitching staff returning and I think they’re pretty excited about their offense. It will be a great challenge for us.”
- Iowa appeared in the Big Ten championship game last season and won at least 30 games for the third year in a row, a feat last accomplished by the Hawkeyes from 1983-85.
- Iowa's weekend rotation: Friday – RHP Nick Gallagher (junior, 2.47 career ERA); Saturday – RHP C.J. Eldred (junior, 3.43 ERA in 2016); Sunday – RHP Shane Ritter (sophomore, 2-1, 3.00 ERA in 2016).
- Iowa was picked to finish in a tie for sixth place in the Big Ten preseason coaches’ poll.
- USF has a 2-0 lead in its all-time series with Iowa. The Bulls defeated the Hawkeyes, 11-0 and 10-8, way back in the 1991 season.
Fans can purchase season tickets, flex plans and single-game tickets at USFBullsTix.com or by calling 1-800-Go-Bulls.
About USF Baseball
The University of South Florida baseball team is one of the fastest rising programs in the country. Under the guidance of first year head coach Mark Kingston, the Bulls reached the NCAA Regionals in 2015 for the first time in 13 years and USF followed that success with a consensus Top 10 recruiting class. Five players from that recruiting class were everyday starters in 2016 including outfielder Chris Chatfield (Riverview, Fla.), who led the team in home runs, and catcher Joe Genord (Lake Worth, Fla.), who was named the 2016 PGCBL Player of the Year. The USF Baseball program has won five conference titles and the Bulls have made 11 NCAA appearances. Follow the baseball team on social media (Twitter | Facebook | Instagram), visit GoUSFBulls.com for the most up-to-date information, and purchase tickets for upcoming games at USFBullsTix.com .
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