Two seasons ago, USF baseball was the talented, but inexperienced team of the AAC. Last season, it won its most games since 1996.
Seven of the Bulls’ 2016 starting lineup were either freshmen or sophomores. They went on to finish that season 24-33. In 2017, those freshmen and sophomores turned to sophomores and juniors producing a 42-19 record, which included a 19-game win streak and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
In 2018, those same players have grown up even more.
Instead of a contingent of young players, USF’s core group is nearly all juniors and seniors. When USF opens its season at home against No. 6 North Carolina on Friday night, it’s likely that seven position players will take the field who started at least 25 games last season and a pitcher who started 14 games — Shane McClanahan — on the mound.
“All those guys are (at least) juniors now, they’ve been through the fires,” first-year coach Billy Mohl said. “They have hundreds of hundreds of at-bats under their belt. The pitchers have tons of innings under theirs.”
Whether the Bulls are good enough to hang with the NCAA’s best will be tested early, with a Friday-Saturday-Sunday series against No. 6 North Carolina and a single game against No. 5 Florida State to start the season. After those four games, the Bulls’ next game against a ranked opponent won’t come until April 7 against No. 24 Houston.
“Getting out of the gates is going to be tough,” third baseman David Villar said. “We were close to winning the American title last year. We were close to dethroning the National Champions. That’s a little bit of the unfinished business. We want to finish at the top of the American and get a little revenge on Florida.”
Villar, team captain, batted .303 last season. He and the Bulls will get their first chance at taking down No. 1 Florida on May 8 in Gainesville. A year ago, USF beat the Gators 15-10 in the regular season, but lost to them 5-1 in the NCAA Tournament’s first round.
While many of the returning Bulls have played over a hundred games in their careers at USF, Friday’s game against North Carolina will be Mohl’s first ever as a head coach.
Mohl, who came to USF as a pitching coach in 2010, was hired to take over the program just hours after former coach Mark Kingston accepted the same position at South Carolina on June 30.
Last season, Mohl led USF’s pitching staff to a program-record 620 strikeouts and a team ERA of 3.24, which was the tenth best out of 295 D-1 programs in the nation. No program had more strikeouts per nine innings than USF’s average of 10.1.
Nine of the 13 pitchers who were on staff last season are back for 2018.
“Well deserved!! Back in full effect in August @USF_CoachMohl #2018,” pitcher Andrew Perez tweeted minutes after the official USF announcement.
“We all wanted him here,” McClanahan, USF’s ace, said. “We all wanted him to be our head coach. We got what we wanted and we’re just really excited to go out there and play for him.”
As pitchers, they have good reason to be happy, too. Eight Bulls have been drafted under Mohl’s guidance, including Phoenix Sanders, Joe Cavallaro and Ryan Valdes in the 2017 draft.
While the man in charge is different this season, the philosophy and routines aren’t. Mohl has never coached collegiately without Kingston and, as a result, gets many of his coaching qualities and techniques from him. For the Bulls, that’s made for an easier transition.
“I’d been with him for a long time and I learned from one of the best in the business,” Mohl said. “I think it’s very important in the transition mode, you don’t come into the situation and change everything. Especially after the season we had last year.”
While Mohl now has the responsibility of the whole team, he still dedicates time to the pitchers exclusively to ensure their development as he acts as both the manager and pitching coach.
“The biggest change for me was obviously going from 16-17 pitchers you work with on a daily basis, to working with 35 (players),” Mohl said. “We’ll split practice time where we have everybody together, but then I can have individual time with the pitchers as well.”
USF lost its No. 1 hitter from last season — Kevin Merrell — to the first round of the MLB draft. Though Merrell led USF in batting average (.386), runs (46), hits (78) and stolen bases (18), the Bulls are returning 65 percent of their run production.
Villar, Coco Montes, Tyler Dietrich, Joe Genord and Garrett Zech all batted above .250 last season and are returning this year.
“I’ve always said, you want a veteran team,” Mohl said. “You can have a young talented team, you’re still going to make mistakes. With a veteran team that’s been through the fires before, you’re going to know what to expect on a daily basis.”