With a 41-win resume, the question at the NCAA selection show watch party wasn’t “will USF Baseball make it into the 64-team NCAA tournament,” but instead was, “who will they play.”
While watching the selection show in the Sun Dome on Monday, the Bulls had to wait until the very last bracket to learn that they’d be playing in the Gainesville regional but showed a lack of anxiety in the wait.
As the television revealed USF (41-17) as the No. 2 seed for the regional, the team rose to their feet and recorded every second of the brief celebration on their cellphones.
Now with their phones away and preparation starting, USF plays No. 3 Bethune Cookman (33-23) at 1 p.m. on Friday at the University of Florida’s McKethan Stadium.
The regional’s other two teams — No. 1 Florida (42-16) and No. 4 Marist (32-21) — will play at McKethan Stadium later Friday night.
The regional will be played in a double elimination format and only the winner will advance to a super-regional.
“At this point there’re no easy games, everybody you play has a chance to win,” said coach Mark Kingston after the selection show. “We’ll go into the regional confident, but also very respectful of our opponents.”
Of the three teams in the Gainesville regional, Florida was the only opponent USF played during the regular season. The Bulls scored a season high 15 runs in a 15-10 away triumph over the Gators on May 9.
Though USF and Bethune Cookman never met during the regular season, they faced several of the same opponents throughout the year with the Wildcats going 7-11 against these teams and USF going 11-7.
Marist, a school in up state New York, didn’t have any of the same opponents as the Bulls and punched their ticket into the NCAA tournament through an automatic bid by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
Florida is the No. 3 team in the nation and is the favorite to win the regional.
However, for USF first-team all-conference shortstop Kevin Merrell the opponent doesn’t matter.
“We’re just so excited,” Merrell said. “We don’t really care too much about who we play. We know we have a really good team, and our coaches have put us in a really good position to win.”
Merrell led the Bulls in numerous offensive categories in the 2017 season. Categories include: slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs scored, total hits, steals and a conference-leading .386 batting average.
This year’s trip to the NCAA tournament will be USF’s 12th in program history and coach Kingston’s second in three seasons as head coach for the Bulls.
“We want to be a team that’s always being considered for the NCAA tournament,” Kingston said. “So far two out of three years we’ve been able to do that.”
“The more often you go, the better chance you have of breaking through to Omaha.”
Going 3-7 in their past 10 games the Bulls will have to turn things around to make that breakthrough run happen this season.
“It’s a great opportunity to have a chance to get to Omaha,” Merrell said. “It’s been our goal since last August, and we think we have a really good shot.”