It was 1995.
The Bucs had just drafted Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. The Lightning, still looking for their first NHL playoff berth, played games at the cavernous ThunderDome, now known as Tropicana Field. The Devil Rays had just been approved as an American League expansion franchise.
The University of South Florida’s baseball program captured the Metro Conference Tournament, earning an automatic NCAA Regional bid.
Since then, USF baseball hasn’t won a conference tournament title.
After switching leagues three times, that formidable history still faces the Bulls (26-29), who open tonight against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (29-23) in the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament at Bright House Field in Clearwater.
“You need pitching depth, timely hitting, you just have to get hot and a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either,” USF coach Lelo Prado said. “The tournament is a real dogfight. It’s the last team standing.”
USF baseball hasn’t enjoyed that feeling in nearly two decades — before the school gained approval for its football program, before some of its players were even born.
This is Prado’s final opportunity.
Monday, USF athletic director Mark Harlan announced that Prado will step down after the season and be reassigned to a new position, associate athletic director for administration and external affairs.
Prado’s eight-season tenure (250-212) has mostly been marked by frustration. The Bulls play in a sparkling on-campus stadium, but on-field progress has remained in the dark ages with no NCAA Regional bids since 2002.
“Now we know what we have to do,” Prado said. “We have to win this tournament. We are capable. We just have to put it all together at the right time.”
Sophomore right-hander Jimmy Herget has a 1.28 ERA (best among AAC starters), plus 82 strikeouts and just 25 walks, but only a 7-6 record to show for it. USF’s offense has struggled often, with shortstop Kyle Teaf (.347, second in the AAC) as the only regular with a batting average over .300. The Bulls have just nine home runs in 1,832 at-bats and a league-worst .326 slugging percentage. They have grounded into a league-high 41 double plays.
Overall, the Bulls have 17 defeats by two runs or less. They lost eight times when the opponent managed just three runs or less.
“A couple of hits here and there and we have 40 wins,” Prado said.
That might be an overstatement, but clearly, more timely hitting would have given USF more of a cushion heading into the AAC tournament. Now it’s win or else.
That’s a difficult task by itself, but USF also is battling history.
AAC AWARDS: Herget is the Bulls’ lone selection on the All-AAC first team. Sophomore catcher Levi Borders and junior shortstop Kyle Teaf were selected to the second team, and freshman designated hitter Luke Borders made the third team.
Louisville’s Jeff Gardner was named AAC player of the year, and UCF’s Eric Skoglund was selected pitcher of the year.
UCF’s Terry Rooney was named coach of the year.