The Bulls showed a competitive spark against ECU last weekend and they will look to keep that momentum in the latest installment of the War on I-4.
After a heated conference series against No. 12 East Carolina (27-9, 5-4), USF looks for a chance to take outright lead of the American when it hosts rival UCF on Friday.
Last weekend, USF’s Joe Genord exchanged words with ECU pitcher Gavin Williams before stepping into the batter’s box. The hard-throwing freshman delivered a pitch and Genord delivered right back. The ball was launched over the right-center field wall.
Instead of simply starting his trot around the bases, Genord watched the ball fly over the fence with an ensuing bat flip. When he finally got to second base, he and ECU infielders exchanged more words which prompted players and coaches to clear both benches. There were no fists thrown and both teams were issued a warning.
“I wouldn’t let my players act like that, but I’m not the head coach for South Florida,” ECU coach Cliff Godwin told the Daily Reflector on Saturday. “They do what they want to do and we do what we want to do, but I wouldn’t let my players act like that.”
Bulls head coach Billy Mohl complimented his team over the weekend, praising the energy they brought.
“I’m really proud of our guys this weekend and how they responded after Friday’s loss,” Mohl said Sunday. “They did a great job of not letting the outside noise take away from the ultimate goal of winning a series. They were determined and brought real energy all weekend. It was a total team effort.”
USF (24-13, 7-5) seeks to keep that energy Mohl described going into the weekend series against in-state rival UCF (25-12, 6-6). Not only do the Bulls have an opportunity to lay claim to the War on I-4 trophy, but they could take sole ownership of first place in the conference.
The Bulls sit atop the American alongside Houston (22-14, 7-5) and Cincinnati (17-17, 7-5). USF could pull away from the three-way tie with a successful weekend against UCF.
The Knights won their series last weekend against Cincinnati and are coming off a victory against Bethune-Cookman on Wednesday.
Earlier in the season, UCF swept No. 1 Florida with two wins.
“We talked a lot this week about how we’ve passed the midpoint of the season,” UCF coach Greg Lovelady said after their weekend against Cincinnati. “The guys have done a lot of good things, we’ve done some not good things, we’ve grown up a lot … We’ve got to utilize all these things we’ve learned now.”
UCF outfielder Tyler Osik was named the American Athletic Player of the Week on Monday. He carried the Knights with 13 RBI over four games and is ranked fifth in the nation with 45.
The Knights also have a pitching staff that will challenge the Bulls. Chris Williams threw eight innings allowing just three hits and racked up six strikeouts. Another pitcher, Cre Finfrock, threw five hitless innings against Miami last week.
UCF often calls upon closer Bryce Tucker from the bullpen. In his last five appearances, Tucker has allowed just two hits and has recorded eight strikeouts.
The Bulls have their own weapons though.
Peter Strzelecki pitched a complete game and held East Carolina to just one run in the Bulls’ 13-1 win over the Pirates.
On offense, David Vilar was named to the AAC weekly honor roll after batting .467 over the last four games. Duke Stunkel Jr. helped lead the Bulls to victory Tuesday against the University of North Florida (18-19, 4-5 ASUN) with three hits and two RBI.
On paper, the two teams have almost identical records. The Bulls are 19-7 at home while the Knights are 6-6 while traveling. In a rivalry series, though, anything can happen.
First pitch for the most recent contest of the War on I-4 is set for 7 p.m. at USF Baseball Stadium.