South Florida Bulls Win First American Conference Championship

The South Florida Bulls defeated UCF on Sunday to win their first American Athletic Conference title. (American Athletic Conference/Ben Solomon)

CLEARWATER – South Florida entered the American Athletic Conference tournament as the No. 6 seed with a 24-26 record. The Bulls departed with their first AAC title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

An 8-7 win over No. 5 seed UCF on Sunday afternoon at BayCare Ballpark got underway less than 12 hours after the Bulls defeated Tulane to clinch a spot in the championship game.

Not bad for a team picked to finish at the bottom of the conference.

“The fact that we were picked to finish dead last in this conference, and to see the fight our guys showed, I’m just so proud of them,” said USF coach Billy Mohl.

The Bulls, who played in the AAC championship game for the first time, saw leads of 6-0 after two innings and 8-3 after five and a half turn into a one-run game after the Knights scored four times off Logan Lyle in the sixth.

Lyle, though, retired the side in order in the seventh and picked up the win. Orion Kerkering, who pitched the final three innings in Saturday’s nightcap, worked the final two innings to pick up the save.

The Bulls were the visiting team and wasted no time in jumping on UCF starting pitcher A.J. Jones. Daniel Cantu, the tourney’s MVP, ripped a full-count delivery the opposite way and over the left field wall for a two-run homer.

The Bulls took advantage of the Knights’ carelessness when they scored four runs in the second. With the bases loaded, two runs in and one out, Roberto Pena grounded into what should have been a routine 6-4-3 double play.

Instead, after getting the out at second, second baseman John Montes began jogging to the dugout thinking it was the third out. Nick Gonzalez scored on the play to make it 5-0 and the Bulls tacked on another run before the inning was over.

“Our offense did its job to build that early lead, which was huge,” said Mohl.

Cantu’s RBI double in the fifth scored Carmine Lane to make it 8-3 and would prove to be the game-winning hit.

Collin Sullivan, who threw 5 2/3 strong innings (two runs) in the Bulls’ tourney opener against Wichita State on Tuesday night, got the start and limited UCF to a solo homer by Josh Crouch in his three innings of work.

Sullivan received some help from first baseman Riley Hogan in the second inning. With the bases loaded and two out, Hogan dove to his right to catch Jordan Rathbone’s liner and save a pair of runs.

“Our pitchers went out there on short rest, and collected outs,” said Mohl. “They showed a lot of guts, and our defense played really well behind them.”

The Bulls made it to the championship game of the double-elimination tournament by defeating Wichita State on Tuesday and Tulane on Thursday. In the latter victory, Jack Jasiak came within one out of becoming the first pitcher in AAC tournament history to throw a complete game shoutout.

A loss to Tulane on Saturday afternoon, in which a 5-1 lead turned into a 16-6 eight-inning loss, necessitated a late-night encounter with the Green Wave to determine who would advance to the championship and play UCF. The Bulls took advantage of wildness by multiple Tulane pitchers in scoring six runs in the first three innings en route to a 7-1 win and a ticket to the title game.

Tom Layberger is also a contributing writer for forbes.com and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth Magazine

Tom Layberger has been a sports writer and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Beckett Publishing, The Topps Company and Comcast. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth Magazine. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a University of South Florida grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.