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Bulls prepare for huge expectations

USF coach Lelo Prado looks at his team’s first 10 games and sees one of the toughest schedules in the country.

But don’t tell him that’s a bad thing.

The Bulls, who were 34-25 last season and fell short of an NCAA Tournament appearance, play seven of their first 11 games on the road, including five against teams ranked in the top 25.

“We’re one of the better teams in America, so we should want to play those folks,” said Prado, who is entering his fourth season as USF head coach. “I think everyone does want to play them. We’re good enough to compete with that schedule.”

The competition?

USF opens this weekend with a three-game series in Gainesville against No. 6 Florida. The following weekend, the Bulls play in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge against Illinois, Michigan and No. 22 Ohio State in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, followed by No. 16 Miami at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa on March 2.

The team is relishing the opportunity.

“It’s going to be exciting for us to get out there and sharpen our teeth against some of the best teams we’ll face this year right out of the gate,” said junior centerfielder Ryan Lockwood, the 2008 Freshman Player of the Year. “We think we have a team that can live up to the hype we put on ourselves.”

The Bulls, ranked preseason No. 32 by Perfect Game, return the core from a team that was 16-3 at one point in Big East play last year but faltered and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament after being swept in the last series of the year by Louisville and getting eliminated in the Big East tournament by Connecticut.

Prado said he expects this year to be different.

“The expectations are huge right now,” he said. “These guys are all sophomores and juniors who have played a lot. We’ve been close, but that isn’t good enough anymore.

“It’s Big East championships and a chance to be in a regional and have the opportunity to go to Omaha. Anything less would not be a good season for our program.”

The Bulls return most of their starting rotation, while bringing in some new faces. Shawn Sanford, USF’s third starter as a junior for most of last season, opted to sign a professional contract after he was drafted in the 13th round by the San Francisco Giants in June.

But USF’s top two pitchers – juniors Randy Fontanez and Derrick Stultz – return, although Stultz won’t be ready until midseason after Tommy John surgery in the offseason.

Fontanez, the Big East Preseason Pitcher of the Year, went 7-3 and finished second in the conference with a 3.09 ERA last season.

Freshman Ray Delphey, who was drafted in the 42nd round by the San Diego Padres in June, will take Stultz’s place in the rotation and will make his first-career start Saturday at Florida. The Bulls also added 6-foot-8 lefty Andrew Barbosa, who has two years of eligibility remaining after transferring from South Florida Community College.

“Guys behind me are as good as me or better,” Fontanez said. “We’re pretty set this year.”

The outfield returns Lockwood and juniors Stephen Hunt and Junior Carlin – all major contributors last season. Carlin was named to the Preseason All-Big East team after leading the conference with a .471 batting average in Big East games.

Prado said, however, the best part will be the luxury of flexibility. The Bulls return the entire infield: junior Jonathan Koscso, who has played second and third base, sophomore first baseman Todd Brazeal, senior Peter Brotons and shortstop Sam Mende, who started all 59 games last season.

USF also added touted freshman utility player Chad Taylor, a 13th-round draft pick by the Chicago Cubs.

“With this year’s club, I have options,” Prado said. “I haven’t had options since my first year here. We’ve got kids who can play everywhere. Taylor can play second, short, third or outfield. Koscso can play them all. (Sophomore catcher Daniel) Rockhold is playing some third. We finally have options, and that’s going to make us a better club.”