When the University of South Florida men’s golf team opens play in Thursday’s three-round NCAA regional at Tallahassee, it’s the punctuation mark on an outstanding season for the Bulls.
According to USF coach Chris Malloy, it’s only the beginning.
“I certainly saw this program as a sleeping giant and I believe we’re on schedule to build this thing into a national powerhouse program,’’ said Malloy, completing his third season at USF after a four-year stint as Florida State University’s assistant coach. “I knew it was going to be a process.’’
Last week, the process reached a milestone.
The Bulls captured the Big East Conference tournament, USF’s first league tournament title since winning the Sun Belt in 1989. That’s a lengthy drought – particularly for a program located in golf-friendly Tampa Bay.
“There’s no reason why this program can’t be one of the best in the nation,’’ Malloy said. “In the minds of most people, these guys are playing with house money right now. No one expected them to be at this point.
“But this group is far from satisfied. Their goal is going to be like any other tournament. They want to win it. If you have that mindset, that’s what it takes to finish in the top five (advancing to the NCAA tournament). This experience is going to be great for our development and everyone’s future.’’
For USF, the future might be now.
Last season, Trey Valentine was named Big East freshman of the year. Last week, Chase Koepka earned the same distinction, but also was named Big East player of the year, marking the only time in league history for that double accomplishment.
Koepka had three top-five finishes and six top-20 finishes in USF’s 10 tournaments. He was second at the Big East Tournament, one stroke behind individual leader David Tepe of Cincinnati. He had a 72.81 scoring average, while firing a season-low round of 65 in March.
“Chase is one of the best I’ve ever coached at any age,’’ Malloy said. “His attention to detail is second to none. It’s one thing to have a good tournament or win a tournament here or there. But his consistency as a freshman was remarkable.
“If we keep getting the freshman of the year and player of the year in our league, we’ll be OK. To have Chase and Trey leading our program for next few years, that’s very exciting.’’
Malloy plans on hanging a large photograph, featuring a signature hole from The Concession Golf Course at Bradenton, in his office. It’s the site of the USF-hosted NCAA men’s and women’s golf championships in 2015.
“That’s something we’re very proud of,’’ Malloy said. “When we first got here, we told recruits, ‘Come here and you’ll play immediately. You can be the first to win a (Big East) championship.’
“As you move along, you sell different things. The competitive level will continue to rise. Now we can sell competing for a national championship – right in our own backyard.’’
Bull bits Ken Eriksen’s softball team (43-14), the Big East tournament champions, should be well-prepared for the NCAA regional in Gainesville. The Bulls faced 13 NCAA tournament teams during the regular season. “That’s why you play a great schedule, so you can see all kinds of pitching,’’ Eriksen said. “You’re going to play them (NCAA Tournament teams) at the end, so why not play them at the beginning and get some good preparation?’’ The Bulls, who open Friday against Georgia Southern, will likely need to defeat the Florida Gators, the No. 2 national seed, in order to reach next week’s Super Regional.
After getting swept at Seton Hall, Lelo Prado’s baseball team lost its opportunity to capture the Big East regular-season title and a No. 1 seed for next week’s conference tournament at Clearwater. The Bulls (33-19, 16-5), trying to protect their unbeaten conference home record, resume Thursday night to start a weekend three-game series against Rutgers (25-26, 13-8). Pittsburgh (40-11, 18-3) and Louisville (42-10, 17-4), the Big East front-runners, meet this weekend for a three-game series in Louisville, Ky.
It will be a special induction on Sept. 27 for Marquel Blackwell (football) and Chris Heintz (baseball), current assistant coaches, who were named to the USF Athletics Hall of Fame. Other inductees are former men’s basketball coach Bobby Paschal and former track and field athlete Dayana Octavien.