Bulls defeat Knights to win first-ever AAC tournament title

Redshirt freshman Daniel Cantu (33) drove in three runs in the Bulls’ win over the Knights on Sunday. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

After being tabbed to finish last in the AAC by the preseason poll, the USF baseball team took down UCF 8-7 on Sunday to take home the title of AAC tournament champions for the first time in program history.

By clinching the conference title, the Bulls (28-27, 14-14 AAC) will advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018. 

USF was seeded as the No. 6 team heading into the tournament, but coach Billy Mohl said he started to believe the Bulls could make some noise after they defeated nationally ranked No. 10 East Carolina in back-to-back games to end the regular season.

“The last two games against East Carolina, I felt like we got our mojo going and started building some confidence,” Mohl said.

The lead up to the championship game wasn’t easy for USF, as it required beating Tulane late Saturday and then waking up early for the championship game Sunday.

“We got back to our hotel [at] about 1 a.m. [last night],” Mohl said. “And then today we got to the ballpark [at] about 9:45 [a.m.].”

As if the game didn’t already have enough drama, being that it was for a conference title, the Bulls’ opponent in the championship bout was in-state rival UCF (31-30, 18-14 AAC). However, the team that lined up across from them did not matter, according to Mohl.

“I told [the team], we played [UCF] eight times so we’re very familiar with them,” Mohl said. “I told the guys in the locker room it doesn’t matter the atmosphere of this game we’re playing in, who’s in the other dugout, it’s just another game.

“It’s another baseball game at the yard and if we play our brand of baseball we’ll be where we want to be and those guys did a good job controlling their emotions and just playing the game the right way.”

The Bulls started off strong. Heading into the fifth inning, USF was up 7-1 and looked poised to coast to a victory.

Mohl said jumping out to the early advantage was an integral part of the win.

“It was huge,” Mohl said. “Obviously … with the fifth game of the tournament, you know runs are going to be scored and it’s very important to start out of the gates hot, just like we did against Tulane last night.”

A significant portion of USF’s lead could be attributed to redshirt freshman Daniel Cantu, who was 3-of-4 on the day including three RBIs and a home run. Cantu’s performance, along with the rest of his work in the games leading up to this one, was good enough to win him the award for the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“He was outstanding all week,” Mohl said. “As basically a COVID freshman, he’s made huge strides and I’m super proud of the effort he gave us today.”

While the early lead was encouraging, the Knights went on to score two runs in the fifth inning and added four more in the sixth. The Bulls also added a run of their own in that time.

USF’s once-comfortable lead was now a mere one-run advantage, and Mohl began wondering what his next move would be.

“I don’t know where my head was at, [but] my blood pressure was through the roof,” Mohl said, recalling his feelings during UCF’s rally. “We were obviously thin on the mound, our guys have been used multiple times so we were just trying to collect outs at that point. I was hoping to get three or four out of Baron [Stuart], [but] he lost his control.

“[Logan] Lyle obviously has been lights out for us all year, he struggled in the one inning and then kind of settled down. That’s what’s to be expected in your fifth game of a tournament. You got to step up. Offense did their job [and] stepped up and we played good defense behind it.”

The Bulls went on to blank the Knights over the final three frames to hold them off, thanks in large part to redshirt freshman Orion Kerkering who tossed the game’s final two innings.

In addition to what Kerkering was able to do against the Knights, he also threw three innings Saturday to finish the Green Wave.

“To ask him as a power pitcher to do what he did for us, getting done at 12:30 [a.m.] last night [and] turning it around and giving us another two innings out of the pen today, I mean hats off to him that was a heroic effort on his end.” Mohl said of Kerkering.

Emotions were running high after the win as the Bulls were flooding the field to embrace each other and get their hands on the trophy they just earned, yet another piece of hardware added to the city that many have dubbed “Champa Bay” over the past year.

For Mohl, it wasn’t just another win. He ranked it second on his all-time list, only behind winning a conference title with Illinois State in 2013 after losing his wife to cancer that same year. 

“This ranks second besides the year I lost my wife and we won the title, this is No. 2,” Mohl said. “The fact that we were picked to finish dead last in this conference, and the fight that our guys showed to show that we can win a championship, I’m super proud of these guys.”

Mohl has since become the co-chair of a campaign named “Vs. Cancer,” a campaign designed to help raise funds for children battling cancer.

USF Athletics and Mohl also hold an annual “Cut for the Cure Game” which took place May 3 this year.

The conference tournament title guarantees the Bulls a spot in the NCAA tournament, and the team is excited to start preparing for its next opponent.

“We’ll find out tomorrow where we’re going and then spend the rest of the week getting ready,” Mohl said. “I’m assuming we’ll start on Friday, wherever they send us. We’ll find out tomorrow and go from there.”

The Bulls’ next opponent and game information will be announced at noon Monday during the tournament selection show on ESPN2. The regional round is set to take place between June 4-7.