Florida State’s Cardullo a perfect example

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Florida State’s Stephen Cardullo is evidence you can go from rags to riches with hard work.

The senior infielder is off to a phenomenal start this season. He has improved in many facets of the game, but most impressive is his start at the plate, where he has a .425 batting average, two homers and 19 RBIs.

Cardullo is the shining star for the Seminoles so far.

He wasn’t always this highly thought of, though.

Cardullo had a successful high school career, but Florida State wasn’t interested in offering him a scholarship. Still, Cardullo was willing to do anything to become a Seminoles baseball player and assistant coach Mike Martin Jr. eventually offered him an opportunity to walk on.

Cardullo didn’t hesitate. He wanted a chance to prove himself, with or without a scholarship.

Photo Stephen Cardullo lives by example at Florida State.
(Florida State)

And that he did.

He hoped to eventually earn playing time. Little did he know a couple of years later he would become one of the nation’s best hitters.

Martin Jr. remembers Cardullo’s first fall.

“When he arrived, his swing was out of whack and he had a football mentality. I never dreamed anyone would work as hard as he did,” Martin Jr. said. “He was probably our No. 15 or No. 16 hitter, so I didn’t get to spend much time with him. I just pushed him off to the side early and told him what needed to be done.

He just kept working at it and got stronger. He was determined. Combine that with his arm strength and the next thing you know, I’m saying holy cow. Cardullo is simply a self-made guy.”

As a freshman, Cardullo didn’t have the greatest numbers. He finished the season with just a .273 batting average in 12 games.

But as a sophomore a year later, his production and playing time greatly increased. He earned an important role and batted .387 in 41 appearances and 10 starts.

It wasn’t until then that Martin Jr. decided to put him on scholarship.

“He wasn’t even on scholarship until right before his junior season,” he said. “He is one of the best stories that has ever come through this program.”

After a productive sophomore campaign, Cardullo – now on scholarship – took the biggest step forward of his career. He batted .376 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs, and also had a .479 on-base percentage. He was an offensive catalyst for the hard-hitting Seminoles.

Now in his senior campaign, Cardullo is well on his way to putting together the best season of his Florida State career.

“I’ve definitely worked on my plate discipline,” Cardullo said. “I think I’m doing a good job of sticking to the game plan and not trying to do too much. I’m limited my strikeouts and having quality at bats. But it’s not just me doing that. Everyone in our lineup seems to be doing that.”

In addition to his role as one of the nation’s premier hitters, Cardullo also is a team captain and shows each day what can happen if you put your mind to something and work as hard as possible.

There are no excuses at Florida State.

“When you see a senior out there like Cardullo that has come from nothing to getting all of this attention, and he still does all the little things like he is a nobody, the younger players take notice,” Martin Jr. said. “It is a powerful thing when Stephen is still working that hard when he has billboards with his face on it and is earning a lot of headlines.”


RED HOT

Florida State – The Seminoles happen to be playing their best baseball entering the Virginia series this weekend. FSU is off to a fantastic 12-0 start and made a statement last week with dominant wins over SEC foes Florida and Georgia. FSU has shown a lot of balance so far this season. It hopes that keeps up in the Virginia series.

Oklahoma – The Sooners were expected to compete for an NCAA regional berth this season, but we’re not sure anyone expected them to be this good. OU started the season with a series sweep over San Diego State and hasn’t looked back. OU is 13-1 and has a chance to make another huge statement with wins over UCLA and Mississippi State this weekend.

Louisville – We’re starting to wonder who can slow down the Cardinals. Louisville had high hopes entering the season, but coach Dan McDonnell has to be feeling like he is stuck in utopia. The Cards are off to a 12-0 start and could greatly help their case for a national seed at the end of the season with a road series win over Mississippi this weekend.

Arizona State – The Sun Devils now have much more to boast about after passing their first test of the season. ASU has compiled an impressive 12-0 record. But last weekend, the Devils increased their stock with wins over Cal Poly, Oregon State, UC Riverside and Florida International. ASU welcomes Auburn to town this weekend.

UCLA – The Bruins definitely have been one of the nation’s biggest surprises. UCLA was expected to contend for a regional appearance, but now has its sights set on something bigger and better in the postseason. Against a very solid schedule, the Bruins have compiled an impressive 10-0 record. They should experience more success at the Whataburger Classic this weekend.

LSU – What an impressive start to the season for the defending national champions. Sure, the Tigers haven’t played the best competition. But starting the season with a 12-0 record is an impressive feat. Now the Tigers prepare for some tough tests the next two weekends with Kansas and Arkansas traveling to Alex Box Stadium.


ICE COLD

Temple – The Owls couldn’t have been happier to notch their first win of the season Wednesday against Delaware State. Before the victory over the Hornets, the Owls were 0-10 after being swept in series against Florida Gulf Coast, UCLA and Duke. Temple isn’t expected to compete for the Atlantic 10 crown, but a 1-10 start still is somewhat of a surprise.

Illinois – The Illini must find a way to build some confidence the next few days. The Illini started the season with a dominating win over Notre Dame, but have stumbled against some solid competition. Since that win, the Fighting Illini have dropped five-straight contests and sit at 1-5 with a pair of contests against Coastal Carolina coming up this weekend. Tough start indeed, but give coach Dan Hartleb some credit for scheduling some legitimate competition.

Cal State Fullerton – The Titans couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. With high expectations entering the season, the Titans have had losing records the first three weekends of the season. That is unacceptable if you’re Fullerton. Things don’t get much easier this weekend with contests against Fresno State, San Diego State, San Diego and UAB.

Georgia – Coach Dave Perno called last week the worst of his tenure at Georgia. The Bulldogs must find a way to right the ship. The Bulldogs have now lost five straight games in ugly fashion to teams such as Alabama, Florida State and Kennesaw State. Georgia shouldn’t have much trouble getting back on track against Siena this weekend.

Sam Houston State – The Bearkats were expected to compete for the Southland Conference regular season title, but we’re not sure that is the case anymore. The Bearkats have been a huge disappointment with a dismal 3-10 record. They split tournament games last weekend against Creighton and Northern Colorado. Perhaps starting conference play at Texas-Arlington this weekend will get the juices flowing.

Pepperdine – Several teams on the West Coast have been disappointments, but Pepperdine is near the top of the list. The Waves are 4-8 and have the tough chore of trying to take two of three from East Carolina this weekend. Beating the Pirates could help the Waves turn the tide. But another bad weekend likely is horrible news for a team hoping to make a statement this season.


WEEKLY STORYLINES

The fight for No. 1 in Tallahassee, Fla., this weekend? – There’s a good chance LSU moves to No. 1 this weekend if Florida State takes care of Virginia at home to begin ACC play. However, there also is a chance the Seminoles jump the Tigers if they take the series from the Cavaliers. At any rate, this weekend’s series between top-ranked Virginia and No. 3 Florida State is a big one. The Cavaliers enter the weekend as the more balanced team, but there’s no question the FSU pitching staff has been a pleasant surprise.

East Carolina hits the road for the first time – The Pirates dropped their first road test to Cal State Northridge on Wednesday afternoon. And somehow, we’re not real surprised. The Pirates, before today, had played all of their games at home because of a rainout at High Point last week. The Pirates obviously had some issues in their first road contest. They also have the tough chore of taking on a motivated Pepperdine team the rest of the weekend. ECU must find a way to finish the weekend with a winning or .500 record.

Louisville hits the road to face Mississippi – UL coach Dan McDonnell couldn’t be returning to his old stomping grounds on better terms. McDonnell, of course, spent a few seasons as an assistant for the Rebels before taking the head post at Louisville. Now, McDonnell carries his No. 8 ranked Cardinals into Oxford, Miss. The Cardinals are a perfect 12-0 and hope to stay perfect against the Rebels. Ole Miss, meanwhile, recorded a nice road series win over Tulane last weekend, but would love to record a series win over a highly ranked club this weekend. The Rebels would love to spoil McDonnell’s return to Swayze Field.

ACC play begins this weekend – The ACC is one of the first conferences to begin league play. It begins this weekend with some very intriguing three-game sets. In addition to the headlined series between Virginia and Florida State, Boston College heads to Miami, North Carolina faces Duke and N.C. State travels to Clemson. BC could really use a road series win over the Hurricanes, while Miami hopes to bounce back from a weekend series loss to Florida last weekend. North Carolina has played an incredibly weak non-conference schedule and needs to show something against a respectable Duke club. N.C. State, which also has played an unimpressive non-conference schedule, also must show something on the road at Clemson after starting the season with an 11-1 record.


MID-MAJOR SPOTLIGHT

Florida International has a winner in Turtle Thomas.

When the Golden Panthers went searching for a new head coach in the summer of 2007, they wanted to find someone with a championship pedigree and extensive experience on the recruiting trail.

They found exactly what they needed with Thomas.

Thomas had coaching stints at perennial powerhouses such as Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and Arizona State. He also helped teams reach the College World Series on 14 occasions.

Thomas already has helped the program take a step forward in two seasons. The Panthers didn’t have a great campaign in Thomas’ first season, but bounced back in a big way last season by finishing the season on the NCAA regional bubble with a 34-23 mark.

FIU hopes to reach an NCAA regional this season.

Thomas discussed the state of his program and more.

Photo Turtle Thomas has FIU headed the right direction.
(Sam Lewis)

Rogers: What are your thoughts on the team so far this season?

Thomas: Other than the first Boston College game this week, the biggest plus has been the performances by our pitching staff. The starters and plenty of other arms have really done a nice job so far this season. They’ve been pitching well to this point and knock on wood it will continue. Every once in a while a guy gets hit around, but overall, we’ve done a pretty good job. Offensively, the batting averages on the team have been OK. We’ve been scuffling a bit the last four our five games, so hopefully we can start establishing some consistency.

Rogers: Have there been any big-time surprises so far this season?

Thomas: There haven’t been any real big surprises so far this season. Most everyone we expected to contribute this season has contributed. I will say this though; Eric Berkowitz is the MVP of our pitching staff. He is a guy that has provided a lot of good innings so far this season. He is our go-to-guy that has been solid as a rock up until now.

Rogers: You have already had some success at FIU and the season has started on a positive note. Have some thoughts on the overall turnaround with the program?

Thomas: We’ve started the season on a positive note, but it definitely is a long season. We have a lot of good teams left to play on a good schedule. We’re just trying to get better as a program each year. We’re playing a challenging schedule that we hope will make us better as the season progresses. I feel like with our schedule that our RPI and SOS will take care of itself at the end of the season. With that said, it definitely is a challenge each time we step on the field.

Rogers: You’re in your third season at FIU. Looking back, why exactly did you take this job?

Thomas: It was kind of home for me, really. I coached at Miami for 12 years, I met my wife here and I made a family down here. It’s home for me. I’m not sure a sleeping giant is the right term for this program, but I thought this program had a chance to do some real nice things in a good conference like the Sun Belt. It seemed like a good fit then and I’m still very happy to be here a couple of years later.

Rogers: At one point, FIU made six-straight regional appearances. Is it reasonable to aspire for that goal again?

Thomas: Making the NCAA postseason is certainly what you aim for as a college baseball program. It takes a lot of strong recruiting and good coaching to get that type of talent and to mature as a team. This is the first year since I’ve been here that we’ve had a little bit of experience. With that said, 67 percent of our team are freshmen or sophomores. We will need to get a bit more experience under our belt. This day and age it’s very difficult for any club to go to an NCAA regional six or seven years in a row because there are so many great coaches working hard on the recruiting trail. We’re just all out there plugging away and working hard.

Rogers: You’re only 12 games into the season. What improvements need to be made between now and the end of the campaign?

Thomas: I think the spots on the pitching staff most everyone has a good solid role in which they occupy. Everyone on the pitching staff knows their role. We’re still kind of juggling the offensive lineup a bit, though, to find the right fit and people. We still have several positions up for grabs because no one has stepped up and taken total control. We’re hoping to solidfy those positions before conference play begins next week.


ROGERS' REACTION

What team do you pick right now to surprise everyone the rest of the season?

The UCLA bandwagon is picking up customers and we’re hopping on for the long haul. The Bruins are off to a phenomenal 10-0 start for a reason. The Bruins had major question marks at the plate entering the season, but the team is hitting well over .300 and those questions appear to already have been answered. Still, we’re a little cautious about the UCLA offense. The pitching staff, though, is undoubtedly fantastic. The Bruins have a fantastic trio of weekend starters in Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen. And the bullpen also is doing a solid job with closer Dan Klein leading the way. The Bruins are the best team in California. If that doesn’t change by the end of the regular season, there’s a good chance they’re in the College Word Series. And that would be a surprise to most people.

Who can and will compete with LSU for the SEC regular season title?

Much of the SEC regular season title race depends on whether LSU ace pitcher Anthony Ranaudo is able to return to the next few weeks. But either way, the Tigers are still the favorite to win the SEC title. Florida and Arkansas are the best candidates to also compete for the title. The Gators have incredible balance both at the plate and on the mound. They have a solid weekend rotation and several talented relievers they can utilize. The same goes for Arkansas. The Razorbacks have a lineup that can drive coaches crazy with Zack Cox and Andy Wilkins leading the way. The pitching staff also has done surprisingly well so far this season. Ole Miss is another team to watch the rest of the season. LSU certainly is the favorite, but Ranaudo’s status could change the landscape.

With Tulane and Southern Mississippi not exactly playing up to par so far this season, could Houston now make some noise in Conference USA?

There’s no question that Houston could make some noise in Conference USA. We picked the Cougars to finish near the top of the C-USA standings before the season for a reason. The Cougars started the season with a tough series loss to Texas State and didn’t look all that great against Santa Clara the second weekend of the season. However, the mid-week loss to Rice last week seems to have sparked the Cougars. UH starting pitchers Chase Dempsay and Michael Goodnight were fantastic at the Houston College Classic. The offense also took care of business. Remember, Dempsay wasn’t a starting pitcher before last weekend. Dempsay gave the Cougars a lift and they played well the rest of the weekend. Perhaps a perfect weekend at the HCC will help the Cougars meet expectations the rest of the season. The slow star will cause them to be on edge much of the season, but a high finish in C-USA play could make the first couple of weeks irrelevant.


LINEUP CARD

Photo Kansas won’t have Tony Thompson again this weekend.
(Associated Press)

South Florida is off to a slow start, but it’s time to give coach Lelo Prado some props. Prado earned his 700th career victory in a mid-week win over Jacksonville … Kansas third baseman Tony Thompson has been banged up the past few weeks with an injury. Thompson will not play in this weekend’s series at LSU. He does, however, hope to be out of a brace next week with the ability to play in 10 days. KU could have a tough time winning that series without Thompson … Kentucky infielder Chris Bisson will miss action this weekend after he suffered a broken nose against Monmouth last weekend. Bisson had surgery and hopes to return to the lineup for UK’s SEC-opening series against Mississippi in two weeks … As reported earlier this week, LSU starting pitcher Anthony Ranaudo will not pitch this weekend against Kansas. There also isn’t a set date on when he will return to the LSU weekend rotation. The Tigers were hoping to get home back for the Arkansas series in Baton Rouge next weekend, but that doesn’t appear likely, at least for now … Mississippi infielder Matt Snyder could miss two weeks or more with a dislocated shoulder, coach Mike Bianco announced earlier this week. Snyder was hitting .333 with three homers and seven RBIs, so his bat definitely will be missed against a very solid Louisville club … East Carolina starting pitcher Brad Mincey will miss a start against Pepperdine this weekend because of soreness in his forearm. The Pirates, though, don’t expect Mincey to be out of the rotation too long … It appears Florida State infielder Devon Travis could be out longer than expected with a hand injury. FSU assistant Mike Martin Jr., said earlier this week that Travis might have some cartilage issues in his hand, which may keep him out longer than expected. In his absence, Justin Gonzalez has done an exceptional job with a .438 batting average, two homers and 12 RBIs … Rice veteran pitcher Mike Ojala continues to progress well from his arm injury and could return to the mound sooner than expected. The Owls originally were expecting Ojala to be back on the mound in late April or early May, but his first outing could come much sooner than that.


THINKING POSTSEASON

Houston – The Cougars got just what the doctor ordered last weekend at the Houston College Classic. With a tough road schedule coming up, the Cougars desperately needed a good weekend at Minute Maid Park. The good news is they got it. The Cougars went a perfect 3-0 with wins over Missouri, Texas and Texas Tech. Perhaps the Cougars are ready to keep their NCAA regional hopes alive after all.

Pepperdine – The Waves definitely appear to be in some big trouble when it comes to crafting their NCAA postseason resume. The Waves had a 1-3 weekend at the LSU tournament last weekend. They also dropped a mid-week affair against USC to drop to 4-8. Now, the Waves must play red-hot East Carolina before hitting the road to face Stanford. This team is climbing into a hole it may not be able to get out of this spring.

Florida – The Gators have high hopes of earning a national seed at the end of the season. Well, their resume received a huge boost last week with a road series win over Miami. The mid-week loss to Florida State certainly hurt earlier in the week, but the series win over the Hurricanes trumps any mid-week setback. UF should take care of business the next two weeks against Charleston Southern and Mississippi State at home.

TCU – There is actually a good chance the Horned Frogs will earn a national seed at the end of the season. The Frogs, barring a surprise, likely will win most, if not all, of their Mountain West series. They also have played a tough non-conference schedule so far this season. The Frogs are now 9-2 after winning two of three at the Houston College Classic last weekend. TCU should take care of business the next two weekends with Texas Tech and BYU at home.

South Carolina – There’s no question the Gamecocks will have their sights set on a regional host at the end of the regular season. That is why consecutive series losses to East Carolina and Clemson means so much. The Gamecocks will be competing with the Pirates and Tigers for a regional host at the end of the season, not to mention Coastal Carolina. The Gamecocks could be facing an uphill battle the rest of the regular season. They should be fine the next few weeks, though.


TRAVEL GUIDE

After traveling long distances the first two weeks of the season, we caught a break last weekend with a short drive to the Houston College Classic. Though the length of the games kept me at Minute Maid Park the entire weekend, here are a few eating suggestions the next time you’re in the Houston area.

House of Pies – Don’t worry, the name doesn’t explain all the food choices at this place. A favorite of mine after a lengthy baseball game, the “HOP” as I call it, offers customers a variety of choices, ranging from regular dinner food to fantastic breakfast options. And oh yeah, the pies at this place are pretty good, too. As an added bonus, the “HOP” offers a very unique crowd during the late-night hours to say the least.

Ninfa’s – If you’re looking for good Mexican food, you will be hard pressed to find a better option than the original Ninfa’s on Navigation. There are plenty of other locations around the Houston area, but trust me on this, hit up the original. From the fantastic salsa to the phenomenal queso dip, Ninfa’s is an outstanding choice for lunch or dinner. The chicken enchiladas are highly recommended at this establishment.

Natalita’s – If you’re not real worried about your calorie intake, this is the perfect Mexican establishment. Perhaps the best Mexican food in the Houston area, at least as far as I’m concerned, Natalita’s is the perfect spot for phenomenal greasy spoon Mexican. It’s off the beaten path from ballparks, located on Highway 290 and Jones Road in Northwest Houston, but a trip to this place is well worth it. To be honest, I pretty much recommend everything at this place. You won’t go home hungry.

Pappa’s Seafood House – There are a wealth of fantastic gulf seafood options in the Houston area, but I grew up going to this place. Quite frankly, you would be hard pressed to find fresher seafood in the region. A fantastic eating option for grilled red snapper or fried shrimp with a regular or Cajun twang to it. The pre-meal salad also is exceptional. This place is not cheap but you will not go hungry. Trust me on that.

Next week is a trip to Baton Rouge, La., and Cajun country. Otherwise known as my culinary heaven on earth.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 11, 2010