South Florida Bulls Have Made Their Coach ‘Super Proud’ During Memorable Postseason Journey
Billy Mohl’s career on the mound for Tulane included the opportunity to play in the College World Series.
That was 2005 when the Green Wave earned the No. 1 seed in Omaha and opened the double-elimination tournament by defeating Oregon State. Tulane lost its next two games, the first of which was 5-0 at the hands of eventual national champ Texas.
Move ahead on the calendar to 2021 and Mohl and his South Florida Bulls are preparing to participate in their first-ever Super Regional. Their opponent? The Texas Longhorns.
It might seem daunting going against the No. 2 and 45-15 Longhorns on a stage the program, which first took the field in 1966, has never reached. Yet, Mohl’s message to his team is rather simple.
The 37-year-old coach made reference to the Tampa Bay Rays and a payroll that is dwarfed by that of American League East rival New York Yankees. The Rays, though, have largely had their way with the Bronx Bombers the past couple of years and defeated them on their way to a World Series appearance last year.
“If you just play your brand of baseball, you have a chance to win,” he said, prior to Wednesday morning’s practice at USF Baseball Stadium. “The stage is big, but at the end of the day you are still playing the same game.”
When things get underway Saturday night, it is not as though the Bulls will be awestruck playing in Austin. After all, they played three games at Texas Tech this season and beat Florida and Miami on consecutive days in the Gainesville Regional.
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“They are not going to be shell shocked when they get out there,” said Mohl, who blanked the team he now coaches over 2 ⅓ innings of relief during Tulane’s visit to Tampa in the aforementioned 2005 season, when both schools were members of Conference USA. “They have been in a big environment and played in front of 6,000 people at Texas Tech. They beat Florida and Miami, perennial (College World Series) contenders. These guys are going to be ready to go.”
Not only have the Bulls given themselves a chance to win the past couple of weeks, but they have created their own luck and taken advantage of everything the opposition has given them.
Frankly, between an American Athletic Conference tournament that featured many late starts and much later finishes, and a Gainesville Regional that was pummeled by Mother Nature’s seemingly endless rain delays — the Bulls endured seven-and-a-half hours of delays the first three days — USF has largely dictated terms in winning seven of nine postseason games.
That is not how things went during a regular season that saw Mohl’s club go 24-26, including 14-14 in conference play resulting in a No. 6 seed in the AAC tourney. (USF was picked to finish eighth and last in the conference’s preseason poll.)
Perhaps it was no surprise the Bulls failed to finish the regular season on the sunny side of .500. The roster is loaded with true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores. There is no lack of talent, but experience is what often brings that talent to the fore.
To that extent, Mohl, in his fifth year as head coach and seventh overall at USF, likens his team’s development to that of taking the time to prepare a good meal as opposed to settling for something done quickly in a microwave.
“If you want a good lasagna, it takes a little bit of time to put it together right so that it tastes good,” he said. “It just took some time for these guys. Really, the Memphis series (in early May) was a turning point when we finally won a conference series and got our momentum going.”
The Bulls were cooking on the road that weekend in taking three of four from the Tigers. However, there was some difficulty building on that at Wichita State a week later. Mohl felt his team should have won the final game of the four-game series against the Shockers, but sloppy play led to a 6-4 loss and a series split instead of a series win.
On the bus ride to the airport, redshirt junior and South Carolina transfer Riley Hogan delivered a message to the team. It was one that sunk in.
“He had a speech that was very emotional and it was very loving,” recalled Mohl, who preferred to keep the details of said speech in the clubhouse. “Everybody listened. That was a big speech and a big moment.”
Hogan, a team leader and a top run producer, had everybody’s attention that day.
“It was more from the heart,” said the first baseman. “It feels good to be around a bunch of guys that you love playing with. Not every team is like that. We bond (on and off the field) and we all love each other. It’s a really cool experience to have that with this group of guys.”
The group of guys, every one of them on the roster, has contributed in some way shape or form to the team’s postseason success.
“You never know when your time is going to come up and you never know when your number is going to be called,” said pitcher Orion Kerkering. “When it is called you need to help your brother out.”
Kerkering, a redshirt freshman, has been helping in a big way. He has allowed only two earned runs in 10 ⅔ innings in a postseason full of heavy lifting.
Heavy lifting? Joseph Sanchez got the Bulls out of a bases-loaded jam and recorded the first save of his career in the regional-clinching win over South Alabama. Devin Hemenway turned in a vital three-inning relief outing in the regional when he had only one appearance all season that saw him go as many as two innings. Jarrett Eaton, who had two RBIs in the regular season, has a pair of three-RBI games this postseason.
“I could talk all day about all the different guys that have contributed,” said Mohl. “It truly has been a team effort.”
Regardless of the outcome in Austin, Mohl could not be more proud of that effort and how his team has performed at such a critical time.
“My joy comes from watching these kids have fun,” he said. “I am super proud of them and all they have been through. We were picked to finish last in the conference and our mission from day one, when (the conference poll) came out, was to leave no doubt. Whatever happens this week, those guys have left no doubt that they are one of the premier teams in the state of Florida.”