Bulls preparing for high expectations

The first pitch for the 2009 season is more than two weeks away, but coach Lelo Prado is already talking about the outlook for South Florida.

The Bulls, coming off 2008’s 31-27 season, are expected to compete for the Big East championship.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t compete for a Big East championship with the players we have,” said Prado, in his third season as USF head coach. “It should be a fun year.”

Prado returns a young but talented roster.

The Bulls lost junior shortstop Addison Maruszak and junior pitcher Daniel Thomas to the 2008 MLB draft.

However, freshman Sam Mende, a shortstop drafted by the New York Yankees, will fill Maruszak’s shoes and is expected to make an immediate impact.

“Sam Mende is way more advanced than the average freshman,” said outfielder Ryan Lockwood. “He’ll be a huge part of our success this year.”

Mende will be joined by junior transfer Peter Brotons, who’s expected to start at second base.

Sophomore Jonathan Koscso will move from second to third and senior Brandon Smith will move from third to first.

The Bulls’ infield will have a new look, but three of the four starters have previous starting experience.

Unlike the infield, the Bulls’ outfield remains intact.

Lockwood, the 2008 National Freshman Player of the Year, will be joined by junior Chris Rey  and senior Mike Consolmagno. The trio combined for 87 percent of the team’s outfield starts last season. Lockwood said the outfield will lead USF this season.

“We’re still a young a team, but a lot of the guys have started before, so experience shouldn’t be an issue,” he said.

The same could be said for the pitching rotation.

The Bulls return sophomores Randy Fontanez and Derrick Stulz to anchor the rotation, while juniors Shawn Sanford and Teddy Kaufman and sophomore Matt Stull will compete for starting spots.

All five saw significant action a season ago, pitching coach Lazer Collazo said.

“At this time of year, you usually think you know the rotation, but there are always a lot of changes — especially at the beginning of the year,” he said. “We feel very strongly about our rotation. They all saw a lot of work last year and come back with experience.”

Collazo said the team goes as far as its pitching staff will take it.

“Whatever pitching does is usually what the team does, and that comes with defense,” he said. “You’re going to stay in ball games with pitching and defense. At the end of the day, it’s all about pitching. And it’s not just the starters — the relievers will have just as big, if not a bigger role.”

Sophomore Stephen Hunt, a freshman All-American last year, and junior transfer Andrew Salgueiro are expected to anchor the bullpen while sophomores Zach Pietrzyk, Doug Wagner and Kyle Eastham are expected to contribute in middle relief.

Matt Reed, a freshman from North Carolina, has impressed the coaching staff as well.

“He’s shown a lot of good stuff (this offseason) and will be a major factor for us this year,” Collazo said. “The bullpen is our wild card.”

The Bulls are projected to finish second in the Big East.

“We’re ready to get this thing rolling,” Prado said. “The players have worked extremely hard this offseason. If they play the way they’ve been working, I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t be successful this year.”

Lockwood said second in the Big East won’t be enough.

“I want to win the Big East,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help the team achieve that goal, I’ll do.”