Optimistic outlook

After leading the USF baseball team to its most successful season since 2002, first-year head coach Lelo Prado is optimistic about the future of the program. However, he knows his work has just begun.

“It was a good start, but I’m by no means satisfied,” Prado said. “We had a nice little run in the conference tournament and we’ll take it and move forward, but we’re sitting here and not in the (NCAA) Regional tournament. We’re going to build this (program) to where we should be in the regionals every year.”

Although Prado feels the season ended on a sour note, the team showed a dramatic improvement under his guidance.

In 2007, the USF baseball team won 11 more games than in the previous season, came within one win of playing in the Big East Conference Tournament championship and narrowly missed an NCAA Regional Tournament berth. The Bulls’ 34-24 record gave them the most wins since the 2002 club won 35 games and – despite struggling at times during the season – Prado admits that even he didn’t envision such a successful campaign in his first year at USF.

“I thought we played better than I originally had anticipated,” Prado said. “I thought we won more games than I thought we’d win and it’s a credit to the coaches and the players that kept fighting. They kept pushing when we struggled and it paid off for us.”

USF started the season strong, winning nine of its first 10 games, but faced adversity late in the year. Home sweeps from Big East champions Rutgers and No. 24 Georgia Tech were part of a mid-season stretch in which the Bulls lost 12-of-15 before winning four of their last seven games to secure a spot in the conference tournament.

“We hit some bumps in the road in the middle of the year, but I think the season went well,” senior pitcher Dan Otero said. “It was a good start for coach Prado and they should be able to build on that for next year.”

As the fifth seed in the Big East Conference tournament, the Bulls defeated No. 4 seed Pittsburgh and No. 1 seed St. John’s in the first two rounds, but were eliminated by Connecticut on the fourth day after failing to score a run in two games against the Huskies.

Pitching was the highlight for USF in the conference tournament, while batting proved to be its downfall. In four games, the Bulls held their opponents to six runs but scored only four themselves.

Otero emphasized the importance of finding a consistent balance between pitching and batting.

“Earlier in the year, the bats picked us up when we were struggling and in the tournament they were just cold, and that happens in baseball,” Otero said. “Hopefully next year they just get a little more consistent and the bats and the pitching work well together.”

Prado has geared his off-season plans toward solving the Bulls’ problems at the plate.

“We’ve definitely got to improve our offense,” Prado said. “We’re happy with the recruiting class we’ve got coming in here and I think that’s going to really help us next year.”

The Bulls were seventh in the Big East in-team batting with a .279 average and had only 22 home runs as a team.

Two returning players looking to solidify USF’s 2008 lineup are junior Dexter Butler and sophomore Addison Maruzsak. Butler and Maruzsak tied for the team lead in RBI (44) in 2007, while Butler’s .332 average and Maruzsak’s .328 average were second and third on the team, respectively.

With such a dramatic improvement in their first year under Prado, the Bulls hope their 2008 season can take them all the way to the NCAA Tournament.