USF hasn’t pulled it together in ’06 

Last year at this time, the television trucks were arriving at Benedetti Diamond, the cameras there to chronicle the USF baseball team’s stunning run to the first NCAA tournament berth in program history.

But as the Dons prepare to host a season-ending three-game series against ancient rival St. Mary’s beginning today, there will be little pomp and circumstance on the Hilltop. USF (24-28) has lost five straight— including a humbling two-game sweep at the hands of struggling Pacific (13-37-1) on Tuesday — and is guaranteed to end the year with a losing record.

"It almost seems like the guys wanted to pick things right up again from the Super Regional at the beginning of the year," USF coach Nino Giarratano said. "And they forgot all the hard work we put in to get there."

Last year was a historic one for the Dons, who won the most games in school history (39), claimed a share of the West Coast Conference regular-season championship for the first time and knocked ninth-ranked Nebraska out of the NCAA tournament. They were led by charismatic two-way superstar Scott Cousins (a pitcher-outfielder who was the WCC’s Most Valuable Player and was drafted by the Florida Marlins), the durable, dependable Patrick McGuigan (the WCC Co-Pitcher of the Year drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays) and RBI machine Stefan Gartrell (Chicago White Sox).

"Those guys were great players and leaders and any team would miss them," Giarratano said. "But at some point, you just have to climb in and be a baseball player. Do the small things, execute and try to put a few wins together."

Like last year’s team, the 2007 Dons stood at 12-12 just before the start of the conference schedule. But in 2006, USF took off from that point, winning eight of its next nine games and then finishing the regular season by winning 12 of 13. This year’s team just hasn’t been able to catch fire. Since beating Sacramento State on March 26 to conclude a five-game winning streak and improve to 15-12, the Dons have not won more than two games in a row.

The team currently sits in seventh place in the WCC with a 6-12 record.

"No one likes to see the season end this way," USF ace Aaron Poreda said. "It’s very frustrating, because after we had the taste of [almost reaching] the Super Regional last year we really wanted to get back [to the NCAA tournament]."

Poreda leads the pitching staff with a 6-6 record and 3.01 ERA and the Dons’ overall numbers are not bad — the team ERA of 4.01 ranks third in the WCC and the 275 runs is fourth. But USF is just 3-9 in one-run games and hasn’t been able to put everything together for a sustained stretch. For example, last weekend against WCC-leading San Diego (Baseball America’s sixth-ranked team), Poreda pitched a complete game and held the league’s top-hitting team to just two runs Friday, but the Dons lost 2-1 on a walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth. The next day, USF scored nine runs in the top of the fourth to take a 9-0 lead, but the Toreros immediately responded with nine runs of their own in the bottom half of the inning and went on to win 19-9. San Diego completed the sweep Sunday with an 8-2 win.

"We did a good job as the underdog and this year was the first time we were expected to win," fifth-year senior outfielder Jonnie Knoble said. "We weren’t any more nervous, but we just didn’t make some of the plays and get some of the breaks we needed."

melliser@examiner.com

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