By Steve Parkhurst
Overcast skies hung over Clearwater, Florida for the first time this week as the American Athletic Conference Championship was settled by the University of South Florida Bulls and the University of Central Florida Knights. With an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line for one team, and the end of the season on the line for the other, the two teams had more than the War on I-4 on their minds.
AJ Jones got the mound start for Central Florida while Collin Sullivan took the hill for South Florida. Both squads were hemorrhaging arms after a grueling week, which included two games for each team on Saturday.
In the opening frame, Daniel Cantu hit a two-out two-run home run for the Bulls.
South Florida then loaded the bases with no outs in the second and proceeded to take a 4-0 lead on a single to left followed by a fielder’s choice. A grounder toward the shortstop seemed perfect for an inning-ending double-play. But, after the second baseman received the throw at second, he thought the inning was over and never made a throw to first base as a fifth run crossed the plate on the second straight fielder’s choice.
After a single placed runners on the corners with two outs, the Knights went to the bullpen and Jones was done for the day. A single by Jake Sullivan made it 6-0 before going to the bottom of the second inning.
Josh Crouch (15) hit a leadoff home run in the third for Central Florida’s first run.
Riley Hogan countered with a leadoff home run of his own in the very next frame and the Bulls once again led by six, 7-1.
Alex Freeland doubled to drive in a run and a fielder’s choice added another in for the Knights as they got to within 7-3 in the fifth. With two on and one out, the Bulls went to the bullpen for a second time. A double play at third base and across to first base ended the fifth inning.
Cantu drove in another run in the sixth on a double to right field for South Florida’s eighth run.
The Knights half of the sixth began with a batter hit by a pitch, that was followed by a single, and then Jordan Rathbone singled to left-center driving in a run. A walk loaded the bases with no outs before Freeland hit his second double in as many innings driving in two runs. A groundout brought in another run and Central Florida was within one at 8-7.
Orion Kerkering pitched the Bulls to the championship by shutting down the Knights for the final two innings on short rest after having closed out the Tulane Green Wave over three innings Saturday night. A two-out double in the ninth did create some tension, but Kerkering was not fazed, and he finished the job.
For South Florida they earned their fourteenth trip to a NCAA regional in program history with the 8-7 victory. The Bulls are the first six seed to ever win the AAC Championship.
“Kudos to our guys, we got back to the hotel around 1:00 AM last night,” South Florida head coach Billy Mohl said after the game. “We had to sleep fast.”
Cantu was named the Most Outstanding Player of the championship after the game.
Cantu talked about his first inning home run. “I was just trying to battle for the guy next to me, and just pass the torch.” Cantu, who struggled on Saturday by his own admission, was modest in accepting accolades. “I ended up running into that ball.”
The Bulls (28-27) can get a little rest now. They will find out on Monday afternoon, along with 63 other teams, where they are headed next weekend to begin regional play in the NCAA tournament.