USF Club Baseball better than ever ahead of 2018 season

Dylan Benedict, the club’s ace in 2017, throwing in his final game on April 8, 2017. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

When USF Club Baseball was founded in 2013, its situation was far from ideal.

Its roster consisted of 12 players. It had no stadium or field to call home, with even local little leagues denying them field access for games.

In its inaugural season, the club wasn’t admitted into the National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) intercollegiate baseball league and was left with just one exhibition game to play against the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s club team.

The next season, they were denied by the NCBA again and were left to play USF St. Petersburg five more times — all of which were on the road.

It lost all six of those games.

“To be honest, we weren’t much of anything in the beginning,” second-year starting pitcher Jarrett Tilton said. “We’ve been exponentially getting better every year, though. This year, the division’s ours.”

In the years following, many more losses would come, but so would progress for the young club, starting with acceptance into the NCBA in 2015. Now, after finishing last season 8-8, the club is favored to win its division this year over club teams from the University of Florida, UCF, College of Coastal Georgia, Stetson University, Nova Southeastern and USF St. Petersburg, according to a season preview on the NCBA’s website.

Geoff Gonzalez, who graduated last fall, started every game at third base since the club’s inception without missing a game. Now, Gonzalez looks to see the club he’s been a part of since his freshman year take its next step.

“I’ve been around since day one,” Gonzalez said. “I could probably count on my fingers how many practices I’ve missed. I’ve been at every single game since the beginning. That’ll continue through this season as a coach.”

Last season, the winner of the Bulls’ division, FGCU, which has since moved to a different league, made it to the NCBA final, but lost to Slippery Rock in the championship game.

Like Tilton, Gonzalez said he believes that the Bulls have a serious shot at winning the division and eventually advancing to the NCBA Finals in Pittsburg, Kansas.

“Everybody else is disorganized right now, while we’re better than we’ve ever been,” Gonzalez said. “Now that FGCU is out of the division, we’re the premier team in the division and we think this is our best chance at making a run at a potential division title and a trip to Pittsburgh (Kansas) is this year.”

If the Bulls are to win the division, they’ll have current president Bryan Rosenberg to thank. Playing a big part in the club’s inability to secure a home field until this season was issues with its “club report card,” which had failing grades due to behavior every year until he took over in 2016.

Since Rosenberg has taken over, however, the club has received A’s the past two seasons and has finally secured a home playing field at Huggins-Stengel Field, a former spring training home of the New York Yankees, in St. Petersburg.

“Hillsborough parks and recreation will not deal with us at all because of conflicts with past presidents,” Gonzalez said. “We tried calling them and asked if they had fields available for rent and they said, ‘No, we’re not going to rent to you guys.’

“We have thousands of dollars available at our disposable from the A&S Budget. Money wasn’t the issue, it was past encounters.”

In addition to securing a home field, Rosenberg also instilled a more rigorous practice schedule and atmosphere, with weekly practices at the USF intramural fields and batting practice sessions at Temple Terrace little league on the weekends.

“Since Rosenberg took over, he kind of reoriented the club and got it back to its original purpose,” Gonzalez said. “Under prior presidents, practices were very bare bones. We didn’t do any workouts and sometimes there were whole months where we wouldn’t do a single practice.”

With the outside logistics of scheduling and a home playing field settled, the team has been able to turn its focus to on-field talent. With the arm of Tilton leading the way on the mound and the bat of catcher Mike Chang, who was born in Taiwan and batted just under .600 in 2017, at the plate, the Bulls are more prepared than ever for its regular season opener against the University of Florida on Feb. 10.

 “He (Chang) hits bombs, has the incredible throwing arm, he can catch and play outfield,” Gonzalez said. “With him plus everywhere else improving, our situation this season is definitely ideal.”