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Baseball looks to build on 2021’s unprecedented success

USF baseball reached its first NCAA Super Regional in program history in 2021, defeating South Alabama on June 7 to claim the Gainesville Regional. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Last season, the USF baseball team was defined by an unspectacular regular season paired with an incredible postseason winning streak that resulted in a conference tournament title and NCAA Regional championship.

Despite the postseason success, the Bulls are not favored to maintain that level of play. The AAC preseason rankings tab USF as the third-worst team in the conference.

It’s difficult to know what to expect from the team in 2022. The offense returns most of their starting lineup while the order of the pitching rotation has yet to be solidified by the coaching staff.

Before the USF baseball season gets started Thursday against UConn, here is a wider look at the season to come.

Familiar faces in the batting order

The Bulls are returning seven players from last year’s starting lineup, most of whom shouldered the offensive load for the team in 2021.

Hot bats like infielders Carmine Lane and Matt Ruiz as well as outfielders Daniel Cantu and Drew Brutcher all hit over .250 last season. Lane led the way with a .306 average to go along with 11 homers.

Another strong hitter for the USF lineup is redshirt junior utility Roberto Peña, who finished the 2021 season with 12 home runs and a batting average of .236. He is confident the Bulls’ lineup will continue to improve with a large number of returning players.

“I think starting from the top to the top of the order to last better, I think we’re all strong all around,” Peña said. “Everybody’s coming back. We’re only missing two pieces, but we have strapped out freshman class and a couple of transfers are going to help us out … I personally think it’s going to be hard to pitch to us from one through nine.”

As for the other two opening spots, transfers and freshmen are all in competition for who will claim them.

“We got some new incoming guys who are very interesting [redshirt sophomore] Ben Rozenblum, a transfer from FIU who has been really good for us. You’ll probably see him in the lineup opening day,” coach Billy Mohl said. “We got two or three freshmen that are pretty special. We got two outfielders, Marcus Brodil and Jackson Mayo who they’re physical, they’re strong, they can run and they can hit.

“Then [freshman] Bobby Boser who’s been an infielder for us also a pitcher, at third base if you look at him, he looks like a third year player with how big and strong he is.”

Uncertainty in the bullpen

Unlike the lineup, the Bulls’ pitching staff has some question marks heading into 2022.

Redshirt sophomores Jack Jasiak and Orion Kerkering were high-caliber pitchers last season and will contribute as USF’s veteran leaders.

Jasiak played as USF’s starter and finished the season with a 2.89 ERA in 98.1 innings pitched. Kerkering appeared as the Bulls star reliever and closer in 50 innings pitched and a 2.88 ERA.

Beyond those two, however, there is a bit of uncertainty as the rest of the bullpen, although talented, lacks the experience of teams of the past.

“I guess I’m waiting to see how it plays out,” Mohl said. “Our depth in our bullpen has a lot of inexperience back there right now. A lot of talented guys, but a lot of guys who haven’t done it when the lights come on.”

Meanwhile, Jasiak and Kerkering will be competing to solidify their spots in the starting rotation with a few new faces as well as returners.

“So all I can tell you is Jack Jasiak, [returning redshirt junior] Brad Lord, [transfer redshirt sophomore] Hunter Mink, Orion Kerkering and [freshman] Jack Cebert are all vying for those spots right now,” Mohl said.

“However those pieces may fall on opening weekend, it will be one of those five guys in those three spots.”

Schedule challenges and changes

In 2021, USF had a schedule packed with a variety of Florida teams such as UF, FAU and UCF. The Bulls finished out the season with a 31-30 record, with a chunk of those wins stemming from postseason play.

For the 2022 season, the Bulls are returning to what is considered more of a normal schedule after a year littered with four-game weekend series due to COVID-19.

“That was a marathon,” Mohl said. “It’d be nice to get back to a normal routine of the pregame weekend and a midweek game and obviously having our fans back in the park.”

Not only do they return to a regular three-game weekend series and one midweek game, but the Bulls have a bit of a different opening weekend than they’ve had in past seasons.

The Bulls face consistent College World Series contenders UConn, Louisville and Charlotte to kick off their season opener with a competitive edge.

“I mean, obviously I want one marquee series before we go into conference play. That’s how the opening weekend round-robin came about,” Mohl said.

Beyond the opening weekend, USF will face a nonconference schedule filled with teams with postseason experience such as Stony Brook, Mercer and Boston College, among others.

USF will go against UConn at 6 p.m. Friday at the USF Baseball Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+ and iHeart Radio Bulls Unlimited.