In a repeat of its 2015 NCAA tournament run, USF baseball was once again ousted from the Gainesville regional after losses to Florida and a lower-seeded team.
Two years ago, the lower seeded team was Florida Atlantic. On Sunday, it was No. 3 Bethune-Cookman which ended No. 2 USF’s season with a 6-4 win over the Bulls at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville.
“It was a tough day for us, but at this point we’re focusing on the season as a whole,” coach Mark Kingston said following Sunday’s loss. “I’m very proud with where this team and this program are, but we’re going to continue to get better and better.”
Despite going 3-7 in their last 10 games, USF (42-19) had its most wins in a season since 1996 – where the Bulls 47-win season also ended in a Gainesville regional – and matched the second longest winning streak in program history with 19 wins in a row.
The Bulls started out the regional strong when they defeated Bethune-Cookman 9-1 on Friday that set up a showdown with the No. 3 nationally seeded Florida Gators (44-17) on Saturday night in the winners bracket.
USF held the potent Gators offense to just one run through the game's first 11 innings and consistently put runners on base. However, the Bulls failed to get hits when it mattered most, stranding 12 runners throughout the game.
In the top of the 12th, USF yielded four runs on two errors, leading to a 5-1 victory for the Gators.
“These kids were playing until 12:30 in the morning last night,” Kingston said after the loss. “We gave our best effort. I would never question, and I would expect nobody that knows us intimately to ever question that.”
Despite playing on little rest, Kingston insisted fatigue was not a factor in the Bulls noon loss to Bethune-Cookman on Monday.
“Anybody that was with us pre-game today would’ve saw that we were a lively, ready-to-get-after-it group,” Kingston said. “I would never question in a million years that these kids were ready to go.”
Next season the Bulls will be without first-team all-conference shortstop Kevin Merrell who elected to forgo his senior season for the MLB draft.
Merrell led the Bulls in batting average, hits, runs scored and bases stolen this past season.
In addition to Merrell, USF will lose five seniors to graduation. These seniors include pitchers Michael Farley, Phoenix Sanders, Mark Savarese and Ryan Valdes, as well as first-team all-conference outfielder Luke Borders.
“I have mixed emotions about it right now,” Borders said about playing his last game as a Bull. “I’m gonna miss it a lot. It’s been four years of absolute fun, and I’m not too sure what I’m going to do without baseball right now.”
Valdes felt the same way following his last game for USF.
“I always tell Little Leaguers that I coach that the best thing about baseball is that you get to play again tomorrow,” Valdes said. “Knowing that you’re not playing again later tonight, the next day, or next weekend, there’s mixed emotions.
“You’re happy you made it this far, but sad that you’re done. I’m just proud of this team and everything we’ve accomplished.”