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Baseball season begins today

The road to the College World Series will begin at home on Feb. 22 against Indiana State, and a young, promising team with high expectations is entering what feels like a breakout season that will put Bulls baseball in the national spotlight.

Bulls coach Lelo Prado and his players enter the season No. 44 in the country, according to preseason polls. Along with USF, only one other Big East team was ranked in the top 45 – No. 23 Louisville. Notre Dame, Rutgers and St. John’s all received votes in the preseason poll.

Even though USF is ranked No. 45, its stock could easily rise if the team takes advantage of playing 17 of its first 19 games at home.

“A fast start would be very important for us,” Prado said. “If we can build some confidence, we can get our young players to get their feet wet and be ready for the challenge the Big East is going to present this year.”

Prado, who enters his second season at the team’s helm, is not intimidated by the competition of the Big East Conference.

“Louisville went to the College World Series last year, Rutgers won the Big East, and St. John’s and Notre Dame are also very strong in the conference this year, but we are South Florida, and we are supposed to be able to compete against them,” he said. “My expectations for this year are to win the Big East, get to the regional tournament, and then go to Omaha to have a shot at winning the national championship.”

The Bulls’ schedule, which features 39 of its 56 regular season games at home, includes four games against UCF, two against FAU, and a visit by the Florida Gators at the end of the season.

The Bulls will also play an exhibition game against the New York Yankees at Legends Field on Feb. 29 at 1:15 p.m. The game will open spring training for the Yankees and mark the first time these two teams meet.

When the players were told about the game, they could hardly believe it.

“(The game against New York) isn’t about the final score. It’s about the opportunity my players get to face the likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Alex Rodriguez. I hope this exhibition game becomes a yearly tradition from now on,” said Prado.

According to the USF Athletics’ Web site, the last time the Bulls played an exhibition game against a professional club was in 2000 when USF faced off with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and lost 13-0.

“The New York Yankees are excited to open our 2008 spring training season against the University of South Florida Bulls,” said Hank Steinbrenner, New York Yankees senior vice president, to gousfbulls.com. “Being a community-minded organization, we see this as an opportunity to promote and support a great institution and a budding athletic program.”

Rays manager Joe Maddon thinks the future looks bright for the Bulls.

“We are a young team with a lot of talent, and we have veteran talent as well,” Maddon said. “USF has young guys and talented upperclassmen. You need talented guys like that to be successful.”

When it comes to being a leader, Bulls sophomore closer Shawn Sanford, who is on the preseason watch list for the prestigious 2008 Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Award, is going to be one of the key players for the young team.

Senior pitcher David Torcise, who went 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA in 19 appearances out of the bullpen in 2006 for the Louisville Cardinals, will be in charge of bridging the gap between the starter and Sanford.

Junior shortstop Addison Maruszak, who was named to the “Louisville Slugger” All-American Team, named Big East?Freshman of the Year in 2006, and is on the watch list for 2008 Player of the Year, will command USF’s offense and the middle of the infield along with second baseman Dexter Butler.