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'They're not done yet': South Florida squeaked into NCAAs, now in Austin super regional

Joey Knight
Tampa Bay Times
South Florida players celebrate a home run hit by Carmine Lane, left, during the Bulls' upset of Florida on Saturday. South Florida won the Gainesville Regional on Monday by beating South Alabama, earning their first-ever super regionals trip. The Bulls will next face Texas.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — South Florida's improbable late-season run now has transitioned from surreal to super.

Facing South Alabama in a weather-delayed, winner-take-all showdown Monday for the NCAA tournament’s Gainesville regional title, the Bulls got a career game from redshirt sophomore Jarrett Eaton and a sparkling extended relief effort from closer Orion Kerkering in a 6-4 victory.

The Bulls (31-28), who have won nine of their last 11 games and 14 of their last 20, face No. 2 Texas (45-15) in this weekend's best-of-three super regional that starts Saturday in Austin.

The winner reaches the College World Series. The Bulls never have reached a super regional, much less the CWS, in 13 previous NCAA tournament trips.

“Throughout the year, we weren’t firing on all three cylinders,” said catcher Jake Sullivan, whose team had to win last week’s American Athletic Conference tournament just to reach the NCAAs. “We hit good, we weren’t pitching well. If we were pitching well, we weren’t hitting good or we’re not playing good defense. And these past two weeks, we’ve been firing on all three cylinders, playing the game the right way.”

Monday afternoon’s decisive game, delayed nearly two hours by rain, was set up by the Jaguars’ 4-0 triumph in a game that began Sunday evening but wasn’t completed until Monday due to a Sunday night storm front. That gave both teams one loss in the double-elimination event, setting up the rematch.

“We’ve got a group in that locker room that believes in each other,” said Bulls coach Billy Mohl, whose team was 18-22 only a month earlier. “And with all the rain delays and everything else, there was no quit in them.”

In the winner-take-all contest, the Jaguars took a 2-0 lead before USF tied the score in the fourth. The Bulls loaded the bases via a single, error and walk — all with two outs — before Eaton’s hit to deep right bounced over the fence for a two-run ground-rule double.

Eaton added a two-out RBI-single in the sixth. Sullivan provided an insurance run with an eighth-inning sacrifice fly to center, scoring Roberto Pena.

Eaton’s average in AAC regular-season play: .196.

“I keep thinking about Memphis where he didn’t play a whole lot (in early May), and that wasn’t that long ago,” Mohl said. “And down the stretch, he’s been unbelievable.”

The Bulls further cushioned the lead in the ninth when Eaton (3-for-3) walked and scored after pinch-hitter Drew Brutcher’s single to center was misplayed. Carmine Lane’s sacrifice fly provided the final run.

Kerkering worked 4 1/3 innings, retiring the first 11 batters he faced and striking out four in a row at one point.

“This is a special group of guys,” Mohl said. “They’ll forever be known as the first team to get to a super regional. But as they’ll tell you, they’re not done yet.”