When USF’s Matthew O’Neal finished third in the triple jump event at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, USF’s up-and-down athletic season came to a close.
USF, which had recently become a school known for its smaller sports, saw continued success from many of those teams coupled with the unexpected rise of its football team in the past year.
As USF enters its second full school year under athletic director Mark Harlan, the Bulls will look to other sports such as men’s basketball and baseball to follow in the footsteps of USF’s 2015 football team.
Football: Following three losing seasons in which the Bulls combined for nine wins, the team took a dramatic step forward, winning seven of its last eight games of the 2015-16 regular season to qualify for the Miami Beach Bowl.
The Bulls (8-5) fell to Western Kentucky in their bowl game, 45-35, but the hype surrounding the team has never been higher, evidenced by increased season ticket sales and several national pre-season magazines predictions for the Bulls to take the East division of the AAC in 2016.
X-Factor in 2016: Quinton Flowers. The Team MVP from last season was the first quarterback to start every game of the season under coach Willie Taggart’s tenure with the Bulls.
Coming off a record-breaking season in which Flowers accounted for 34 touchdowns, USF will need a similar type of season from the dynamic, dual-threat junior to contend for the AAC title.
Softball: After starting the season with a 2-7 record, coach Ken Eriksen pushed his team to bounce back. The Bulls would go on to finish 43-9 from that point on to close the regular season before falling in the NCAA Regional to South Carolina.
X- Factor in 2017: Cheyenne Eggens. The freshman pitcher held a 7-0 record with a 2.32 ERA in 87 1/3 innings. Her win in the NCAA Regional was the Bulls’ sole postseason win this year.
With AAC Pitcher of the Year Erica Nunn graduating, Eriksen and the Bulls will once again begin the year with a new ace on the mound. Replacing her conference-leading 27 wins and 1.71 ERA will be difficult, but Eggens will likely have to step up to help fill the void.
Men’s Tennis: Under coach Matt Hill, the USF’s men’s tennis team has risen to new heights, as they won a third-straight AAC Championship and climbed as high as No. 17 in the national rankings this season.
X-Factor in 2016: With four of the team’s nine players graduating last season — including No. 1 player Roberto Cid — Hill and the Bulls will need players such as seniors Sasha Gozun and Vadym Kalyuzhnyy to become team leaders.
Both Gozun and Kalyuzhnyy competed in the NCAA Doubles Championships, but will need to improve their singles play if they are to keep the Bulls nationally ranked.
Baseball: The Bulls reached the NCAA Tournament in coach Mark Kingston’s first season at the helm in 2015, but stumbled to a 24-33 record in 2016. USF began the season with a mere five seniors on its 33-man roster and by the time the season was done, only two remained healthy.
X-Factor in 2017: Catcher Levi Borders. With the first year of USF baseball’s rebuilding project, the Bulls saw flashes of talent from several newcomers, but the most important piece to the team may be someone who’s been there the longest.
Borders was granted another year of playing eligibility after being shut down due to a bacterial infection in 2016. Going forward, Borders will likely be an integral part of the middle of USF’s lineup and a reassuring presence behind the plate.
Men’s Basketball: Two years into coach Orlando Antigua’s stint with the Bulls, he has given little to be hopeful for in the upcoming 2016 season. USF finished 8-25 in 2015-16 and saw two highly recruited players dismissed from the team in guard Roddy Peters and forward Chris Perry.
X-Factor in 2016: Jahmal McMurray. The undisputed leader of last season’s squad, McMurray will look to improve on an impressive freshman campaign in which he averaged a team-leading 15.2 points per game.
If the Bulls are to push for a better record in the 2016-17 season, Antigua and USF will need McMurray to take another step forward in his growth as a player.
Volleyball: The USF volleyball team, which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2002-03 season, struggled again in 2015. The Bulls finished the year with an 11-21 record.
X-Factor in 2016: Joli Holland. With team-leader Dakota Hampton graduating at the end of last season, Holland will have to fill the void at outside hitter. The junior ranked second on the team in several categories including kills, blocks, service aces and points.