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It's crunch time for South Florida's volleyball team.
Today the Bulls begin the quest for their first Conference USA title since 1996 in Houston. USF, seeded third in the 12-team event, has one of four byes and begins at 3 p.m. against Southern Miss or Marquette.
USF (21-7, 13-3) also hopes to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. The Bulls have reached the NCAAs six of the past eight seasons, and if they advance past today's quarterfinal they should secure an at-large bid. The winner gets an automatic bid.
USF won the first two C-USA tournaments, in 1995 and '96, and lost in the final to Louisville in '98 and last season.
The Bulls have won nine consecutive matches, and coach Nancy Mueller, in her third season, has high expectations.
"The team chemistry has improved so much," said Mueller, noting USF integrated three new starters into the lineup this season. "Since the middle of the year our level of play has been very high.
"Can we win the tournament? If we keep playing like we have."
Cincinnati (14-2 C-USA) is the top seed. If USF wins today, it likely will meet Louisville in a semifinal Saturday. The No. 2 seed Cardinals are the last team to defeat the Bulls (Oct. 7). The championship match is Sunday.
HOT PURSUIT: Most of the football coaches got a head start Thursday on a weekend of recruiting (USF has a bye Saturday). Coach Jim Leavitt guided the Bulls through conditioning drills before hitting the recruiting trail.
BRIGHT FUTURE: The men's soccer team is 14-5 heading into today's opening game of the C-USA tournament against Marquette, and the Bulls have higher expectations for next season.
Three of the four USF players named to the All-Conference team this week will return next season: junior midfielder Jeff Thwaites (first team), sophomore goalkeeper Troy Perkins (second team) and freshman defender Jared Vock (second team). Senior forward Jason Cudjoe also was named to the first team.
BULL RUSH: Quarterback Marquel Blackwell has guided USF to five straight games with 40 or more points, but the defense has been playing well, too. The Bulls rank seventh in the nation in sacks per game with 3.5 (35 in 10 games). Michigan leads with 4.67.
HOT SPOT: One place you can expect to find a USF football coach (or two or three) tonight is Chamberlain High. About 7,000 fans are expected for the Class 5A, second-round playoff showdown between local powers Chamberlain (9-2) and Hillsborough (9-2). Both are laden with Division I prospects, and at least two Chamberlain players are being recruited by USF: linebacker Ollie Hoyte and receiver Brian Clark. In their regular-season meeting a few weeks ago, Chamberlain beat Hillsborough 26-23 in quadruple overtime.
COLD STREAK: What is the best sports team on campus?
The 7-3 football team? The 21-7 volleyball team? The 14-5 men's soccer team?
Better than those three, at least in terms of winning percentage, is the club hockey team. The IceBulls are 7-1 heading into Saturday's game against Georgia Tech at the Ice Palace. (It will follow the Lightning-Carolina Hurricanes game, which starts at 5 p.m.) The Yellow Jackets handed USF its lone loss, 5-3 on Oct. 19. The IceBulls swept two games from Florida over the weekend in Jacksonville. In Saturday's 4-3 win, Vinny Lukasik scored the winner with about four minutes left on an assist from Ryan Colbert.
-- Pete Young covers USF sports. He can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or via e-mail at