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Kingston brings hope to USF

Coach Mark Kingston compiled a 170-101 record as the coach of Illinois State over the past five seasons. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

The crisp afternoon sunshine glistened off his blue-lensed sunglasses like a ray of hope.

His words were so clear, so filled with buoyancy, you could almost hear the faint beep of an otherwise flat-lined program stirring back to life.

And that was just the first minute of new USF baseball coach Mark Kingston’s media-day introduction along the first base concourse at the USF Baseball Stadium on Wednesday.

In two weeks, Kingston will take his place along the railing of the Bulls’ dugout for the first time against fifth-ranked Cal State Fullerton, a Division I powerhouse that has made 23 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, 10 of which concluded in Omaha, Nebraska at the College World Series. 

The only time USF has ever seen Omaha is on a map. In fact, the last time the Bulls were in the postseason, Jon Gruden was gearing up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a Super Bowl run, American Idol debuted on Fox and the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts was Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me.”

Thirteen years is a long time. But that’s going to change — Kingston has a plan for this program. 

Kingston, hired from Illinois State in June to replace Lelo Prado, who stepped down after eight seasons to take an administrative role, believes he has something special here.

He wants to prove the team’s doubters wrong, namely those who projected the Bulls to finish fifth in the eight-team American Athletic Conference (AAC). 

“I think we’re set up at this point to surprise some people … I think our goals are much higher than that,” Kingston said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to do it on the field. But I think we have some pieces in place where we can do a lot of good things.”

Good may be an understatement.

USF boasts a solid starting rotation, headlined by right-handers Jimmy Herget, who finished with a 1.72 ERA in 14 starts last season and was named first team All-AAC, and Casey Mulholland, who was 4-3 with a 3.65 ERA in 18 games.

When asked of his early impressions of Kingston and the new coaching staff, Mulholland needed just two words: “They’re awesome.”

Still, an abundance of questions remain.

The Bulls have lacked consistency the past few years, and this season’s slate of opponents won’t make things any easier.

Aside from Cal State, USF also faces several other postseason contenders, including Louisville, Florida, Florida State, FIU and Florida Gulf Coast. And that’s just the non-conference schedule.

Kingston will also have to tinker with an offense that lacked power (nine home runs, 81 extra base hits) and ranked among the lowest in the conference.

But he isn’t concerned. Kingston believes returning players such as infielder Kyle Teaf and outfielder Austin Lueck, who hit .354 and .277, respectively, will continue to improve. Newcomers like freshman Kevin Merrell, who Kingston referred to as an “elite runner,” may also provide some spark.

For now, though, it’s about instilling a firm work ethic in his players and grooming them to make the transition into his style of play.

“You’ve got to show up and win every day,” Mulholland said. “He stresses that a lot. You’ve got to show up ready to go and get better every day. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. That’s our mentality.”

Will that lead to a place in the postseason? Absolutely. It may not come this season, but it will, eventually. There’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re not going to make any bold predictions,” Kingston said. “But we are going to say that we’re going to play extremely hard. We’ll be a very smart team and we’re going to maximize our ability.”