USF hosts UCF in crucial final series

After leading USF to first place in the AAC over two months into the season, coach Mark Kingston has seen the Bulls lose seven of their past nine games. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU 

The rivalry between USF and UCF is nothing short of intense. 

When the Bulls hosted the Knights last season, the Knights’ bench cleared in the fifth inning of the final game after a series of trash talking. 

This season, the focus will likely be at an all-time high with plenty at stake.

With only three games remaining in the regular season, both teams are battling for a better seeding in the AAC tournament, which begins Tuesday at Bright House Field in Clearwater.

Currently, USF is tied for third with three other teams, while UCF is seventh of eight teams.

As much as the Bulls (30-21-1, 11-10) and Knights (30-23, 9-13) would like to be different, their similarities are glaring.

Both started their seasons on hot streaks. 

USF sat atop the standings for about nine weeks, starting the season 28-14-1 overall and 9-4 in conference play. Meanwhile, UCF started its season 21-6 overall and 1-0 in conference play.

Since then, both teams have cooled down drastically. 

It seems the series against Houston, now the first-place team, marked the turning point in both of their seasons.

The Bulls beat the Cougars in their first meeting April 24, but have lost seven of nine since.

The Knights met the Cougars earlier in their season, winning that game March 27. They have since lost 17 of 26.

The Knights found success, however, when they hosted USF earlier this month. They took two of three, outscoring the Bulls 5-1 in the first two games. 

USF, which is 20-6-1 at home, has the home-field advantage this time around. UCF is 5-14 when playing on the road. 

Six Knights boast batting averages over .300, with senior Tommy Williams leading the team with a .333 average. 

USF freshman Kevin Merrell and junior Levi Borders are the only Bulls batting over .300, hitting .333 and.315, respectively. Merrell is fourth in the nation with 16 sacrifice bunts and Borders leads the Bulls with nine home runs. 

The Bulls will likely depend on pitching and defense to beat the Knights, who lead the AAC with their collective .298 batting average. USF’s team ERA is 3.82, compared to UCF’s 4.65 ERA, and the Bulls lead the conference with 447 strikeouts, compared to the Knights’ 379. 

USF is coming off a series against Tulane, in which the Bulls dropped two of three in Louisiana. Tuesday’s game against Jacksonville was canceled because of weather, but the action continues tonight at 6:30 when the Bulls and Knights take the field in Tampa. 

The second game is set for Friday at 7 p.m., and the series concludes Saturday at 1 p.m.