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USF opens season with in-state foe

Great expectations surround the USF baseball program this season, and what better way to prove it than by playing the No. 6 team in the country to open the season.

The Bulls are expected to send Big East Preseason Pitcher of the Year Randy Fontanez to the mound Friday at 6:30 p.m. for the first of a three-game series against No. 6 Florida in Gainesville.

“I think we know what kind of team we have,” said Fontanez, who was second in the league with a 3.09 ERA last season. “We just have to come out and play our game. If we do, we should have a great time in Gainesville.”

Behind Fontanez, two newcomers will start Saturday and Sunday: freshman Ray Delphey and junior college transfer Andrew Barbosa.

Delphey, who was drafted by the Padres in the 42nd round of June’s MLB Draft, will make his first-career start by filling in for Derrick Stultz, USF’s No. 2 starter who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery.

“I’m excited,” Delphey said. “There’s going to be nerves for everyone, especially me because I’m a freshman pitching in a big game. But I’ll get through it.”

USF coach Lelo Prado said Delphey is a player who could make a significant impact this season.

“He’s such a competitor. He’s a baseball player,” he said. “(Delphey) is going to learn a little bit the college way. When he’s on the mound, he competes. With Derrick out right now, he’s a great asset to our program.”

The Gators are picked to finish atop the SEC East by the coaches this year, while the Bulls, who missed out on a regional birth last season, are picked to finish second in the conference behind Louisville in the Big East Preseason coaches’ poll.

“I think this team has a chance to do something special,” Prado said. “We have the toughest schedule in America the first 12 (games), but we’re good enough to compete with that schedule. I’m not too concerned about it. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, we could have a special season.”

USF also has games against No. 22 Ohio State, No. 16 Miami, Illinois, Michigan and Oklahoma (twice) before opening conference play .Fontanez said he is anxious for Friday.

“I’m very excited and nervous at the same time,” he said. “But that‘s a good thing.”