Weekend Preview: Rivals UCF, USF Meet For Key AAC Series

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After a topsy-turvy opening weekend in the American Athletic Conference that saw preseason favorites East Carolina and Houston lose series, rivals Central Florida and South Florida will meet this weekend in Tampa for a key conference series.

Both teams have gotten off to strong starts this season after finishing last year tied for last in the American. Now, however, they are getting into the meat of their schedules as conference play begins. UCF (23-7) is coming off a series win against then-No. 23 Houston, while USF lost its series at Tulane last weekend. The American race looks like it will be hotly contested this season, creating high states for all eight conference weekends.

Utah at (1) Oregon State
(17) Wake Forest at (2) Louisville
Murray State at (3) Texas Christian
(4) North Carolina at Boston College
Virginia Tech at (5) Clemson
Baylor at (6) Texas Tech
(7) Auburn at Texas A&M
Tennessee at (8) Florida
(9) Oklahoma at Texas
(10) Arizona at Washington State
Vanderbilt at (11) South Carolina
UC Davis at (12) Cal State Fullerton
(13) Kentucky at (22) Mississippi State
(14) St. John’s at Creighton
(15) Louisiana State at (16) Arkansas
(18) Florida Gulf Coast at Stetson
UC Riverside at (19) Long Beach State
(20) Stanford at Southern California
Florida International at (21) Southern Mississippi
Pittsburgh at (23) Virginia
(24) Florida State at North Carolina State
(25) Maryland at Nebraska

Both UCF coach Greg Lovelady and USF coach Mark Kingston said their teams appear to be well matched.

“Both teams look very similar,” Kingston said. “They’re strong offensively, strong defensively and have really been able to pitch. It should be a really good matchup. Both teams look very evenly matched. They look improved.”

Lovelady is in his first season as the Knights coach after getting hired away from Wright State last July to take over the program after Terry Rooney left to become the recruiting coordinator at Alabama. UCF went 26-33 last season and returned the bulk of that team.

Lovelady said he wasn’t sure what to expect this season as he joined a new program for the first time in 12 years. The Knights are a veteran team with mostly third- and fourth-year players who have worked hard to improve this spring.

“I like where we’re at,” Lovelady said. “We’ve continually gotten better throughout the year. I don’t think we’re as good as we need to be yet, but we’ve made a lot of strides.”

Outfielder Luke Hamblin (.347/.472/.459, 11 SB) and infielder Rylan Thomas (.346/.383/.587, 6 HR) have led the Knights’ lineup, but Lovelady said a new offensive hero has emerged nearly every week. UCF has six regulars hitting better than .300 and seven players have hit multiple home runs.

Righthanders Robby Howell (5-0, 2.28) and Juan Pimentel (5-2, 1.76) lead the rotation, and lefthander Bryce Tucker (1-0, 0.98, 6 SV) has emerged as the closer. Tucker has struck out 36 batters and walked three in 18.1 innings, giving Lovelady the kind of weapon he likes to have in the bullpen.

“He’s been great,” Lovelady said. “I’m a big bullpen guy. We have four or five guys we can go to at the end of the game.”

USF is also much improved this season after finishing 24-36 last season. The Bulls won 19 straight games earlier this spring, tied for the third-longest winning streak in the country this year. They are 4-4 since that streak

“I’m pleased with development of this team so far,” Kingston said. “We’re improved from last year offensively, defensively and pitching wise.”

USF is led offensively by shortstop Kevin Merrell (.427/.504/.641, 16 SB) who is gaining steam as a draft prospect. He is one of five regulars hitting better than .300 and has been a key table setter for the Bulls.

A significant part of the Bulls’ improvement is tied to a healthier—and therefore deeper—pitching staff. Lefthander Shane McClanahan (4-1, 2.21) and righthander Peter Strzelecki (1-1, 1.42), two key pieces of USF’s eighth-ranked recruiting class last year, missed all of last season and righthander Ryan Valdes (5-0, 3.26) was limited to just three innings due to injuries. All three have made strong returns and have been three of the Bulls’ best pitchers this spring. With Friday starter Phoenix Sanders back for his senior season, USF has a strong core on the mound.

Kingston said he is enjoying watching their successful returns knowing what they went through last year.

“The guys who missed last year had to endure watching us struggle some, had to endure rehab and had to put a lot of time to get back on the field,” he said. “To see them get back on field and excel is exciting for the coaching and rehab staff.”

This weekend’s series also marks the first meeting between Kingston and Lovelady, who were a both part of Miami’s 2001 national championship team. Lovelady was the Hurricanes’ catcher and Kingston was his position coach.

Because of their roots, perhaps it is no surprise that their teams are so much alike. Both coaches are expecting a close, well-played series this weekend.

“It will probably be three close games,” Lovelady said. “I think they could go either way. Probably the team that makes the least amount of mistakes will win.”


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