USF shortstop Sam Mende chose to play for the Bulls despite being recruited by perennial powerhouse programs like Miami, Florida and Texas.
But after making a name for himself in high school, the biggest choice the freshman from Clearwater had to make wasn’t which school he would attend, but whether he would attend one at all.
Mende went to Clearwater Central Catholic High School (CCCHS) in Pinellas County, where he started at shortstop for four years and as a junior led his team to the state championship. In the process, Mende broke every offensive record at the school, except in home runs.
“Baseball-wise, (CCCHS) is a top-notch program,” Mende said. “It prepared me to play in college. It also helped me realize what it takes to be a person, and what it takes to work toward the future.”
His high school performance didn’t go unnoticed.
The summer after his graduation, Mende’s family got a call they weren’t expecting: The New York Yankees had drafted him in the 40th round of the Major League draft.
“It was a weird, surreal feeling,” said Kelly Mende, Sam’s mother. “When the call came, we panicked. We were unprepared. You’d like it to happen but never expect it to happen.”
Being selected to play for the Yankees posed a dilemma: Take the deal or honor his commitment to play for coach Lelo Prado at USF.
“That’s where we stumbled,” said Brian Mende, his father. “We said ‘no’ (to the deal with Yankees) and that turned into an ugly situation in our life.”
Mende had dreamt of playing in the pros since he touched a baseball, and the feeling was hard to let go, Brian said.
“He was a high school kid,” he said. “He wanted to be in the pros without a doubt. Was it the right time? No, I guess it wasn’t quite the right time.”
Brian said the choice was made to better his son’s future.
“He may not have been the happiest kid that night, but we felt it was the right decision,” Brian said. “You can’t look back now.”
Mende, however, put everything behind him and focused on his new home with Prado and the Bulls to gain the starting shortstop role as a freshman.
“You have to have that in your mind,” Mende said. “If I came here not knowing I’d be behind someone, I would’ve taken myself out of that confident approach.”
His transition into a new setting hasn’t been all that easy, though.
“The hardest part is the whole schedule thing,” Mende said. “Now, I have to wake up early, stay on schedule with meetings, stay healthy and realize there’s a lot more work that goes into it.”
Another Bull who knows how to make a quick transition is sophomore outfielder Ryan Lockwood. As a freshman, Lockwood played his way into five freshman All-American honors, posting a 32-game hitting streak that carried into this season.
“In high school, we all expected to get hits every time,” Lockwood said. “It just doesn’t happen here. I used to get crazy when I got out or made an error. (Mende) does that a bit but will realize it happens, and that everybody’s behind him no matter what he does.”
Mende’s arrival came at an opportune time as the Yankees also drafted the previous starter at shortstop, Addison Maruszak. He had a year of college eligibility remaining but chose to sign instead, leaving the door open for Mende.
“I knew (Maruszak) got drafted, so the position was open for me to come in,” Mende said. “But you have to come in with confidence no matter who you are. So me being the baseball fanatic I am, I told myself I was starting no matter what and it worked out.”
Despite starting as a true freshman, the Bulls’ shortstop said he’s not the type to get nervous and has enjoyed starting in every game for USF, compiling a .271 average with two home runs this season.
“Obviously, I thought about it a little bit and it’s pretty special to be starting as a freshman for a program like this,” Mende said. “They brought me here for a reason and that’s because they know I can play. I just have to focus on my job at hand.”