There might not have been anyone on campus that was as familiar with Murphy’s Law as the USF Baseball team was in 2016.
Already working with a roster that included 16 true freshmen from a national top-10 recruiting class, coach Mark Kingston’s team was ravaged by injuries even before last season could begin.
“Last year was a tough year for us for a lot of different reasons,” Kingston said. “Our team has worked extremely hard since that season ended, evaluating every part of the program to make sure that what happened last year to us, for some reasons in our control and some out of our control, it never happens again.
“No disrespect to last year’s team, but we had to deal with a lot of adversity. Knock-on-wood so far this year the guys appear to be at full strength and we’ve seen a lot of improvement on the pitching staff.”
The Bulls lost two of their top recruits when freshmen pitchers Shane McClanahan and Matthew Sellers had to have Tommy John surgery after injuries in spring practices. It wasn’t long before junior college transfer pitcher Peter Strzelecki joined them on the bench with the same injury.
When the season began, the injuries didn’t stop.
Several key players missed weeks at a time, including starters Kevin Merrell and Luke Maglich. Roughly halfway through the season, starting catcher and cleanup hitter Luke Borders was lost for the season due to a bacterial infection.
The Bulls stumbled to a 24-33 record, far from their NCAA Tournament appearance and 34-26-1 record of the year before.
“When you come in as a freshman, there’s a definite learning curve,” Merrell said. “Sometimes it takes a little longer than others, but I’ve learned a lot from coach and he’s been a huge, huge help in my development. Like with our freshmen last year, the experience they got last year was invaluable.
“Going into this year, that’s going to make them so much better. That’s the biggest thing is going out there, getting experience and getting comfortable.”
Now, Kingston is fielding a healthy roster for the first time in years and his freshman have since matured. The difference in this year’s team is tough to prognosticate, which is why Kingston said he isn’t paying attention to the projections.
“There’s been a few polls come out and I think we’ve been as low as six and as high as four and everywhere in between,” Kingston said. “The way I’m looking at it, they just don’t know what our personnel looks like. We’re going to look at it as if they don’t know about Shan McClanahan, they don’t know about the improvement of Kevin Merrell, they don’t know about the improvement of Phoenix Sanders, they don’t know what our recruiting class looks like.
“So how could anyone really know how good we’re going to be? That’s our approach, and I happen to think we’re going to be better than most people think.”
Most of USF’s positional players will remain where they were in 2016, as Maglich, last season’s right fielder, is the only non-returning starter in the field.
Though Kingston and the Bulls lost one of their weekend starters and their closer when Brandon Lawson and Tommy Eveld were drafted over the offseason, the third-year coach said the team’s pitching is far beyond where it was in 2016.
While it remains unclear exactly who will be joining Sanders in the weekend rotation, Kingtson said it likely could be made up of a few of the pitchers who didn’t get to see the field last year, with McClanahan and Strzelecki being considered for those other weekend starts.
“I think our pitching is far ahead of where it was last year,” Kingston said. “We lost two really good ones to the pro draft last year in Lawson and Eveld, but the depth of guys, when you factor in our injured guys who are now returning, you factor in some new players from this year’s recruiting class, and you talk about the continued growth that Billy Mohl has done with guys like (Sanders), I feel a lot better about our options going into this season.”
Replacing Eveld at the back end of games will be some combination of sophomore Andrew Perez and senior Michael Farley, who Kingston said have stood out in practice. He said he still had final decisions to make on a couple of guys, as he rounds out both his rotation and the bullpen.
The Bull will have the chance to try their luck in the 2017 season when Sanders takes the mound Friday night at 6:30 at the USF Baseball Stadium as USF hosts Iowa.