Martin Fennelly Columns
Facing USF's 'Sugar' anything but sweet
TAMPA Growing up, everyone called her "Sugar." She was sweet, shy and unassuming. They still call her Sugar. Success hasn't changed her. True, she's grown up, 6 feet high, and if you have a softball bat in your hand, there isn't much very sweet about the woman in the circle: South Florida left-handed sophomore pitching star Sara Nevins. You're going to get a pitch up or down, in or out, you're going to get the rise ball, the drop, the cutter, the screwball or the change-up. You're going to strike out, or get shut out, or, at the very least, lose. And the kid on the mound won't so much as change expression."I'm sort of emotionless when I'm out there," Nevins said. That poker face will be tested, severely, if Nevins and South Florida win two more games to advance to the school's first Women's College World Series. Standing between the Bulls and a trip to Oklahoma City is Hofstra, the opponent in a best-of-three NCAA super regional beginning Friday night at USF's sparkling softball stadium. Sugar should be "out there" in the opener. Nevins is a finalist for USA Softball college player of the year. South Florida has won 48 games and Nevins has been the winning pitcher 29 times, against only five losses, with a 1.01 ERA and 300 strikeouts, with some no-hitters and a perfect game thrown in. Last time out, Nevins provided USF with one of the school's great athletic moments. Nevins and the Bulls were leading Florida 1-0 in Gainesville in a regional game. But in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Gators loaded the bases with no outs. It was about to slip away. USF coach Ken Eriksen walked toward the pitching circle, ready with his best rah-rah, you can get 'em kid speech. Sugar cut him off, sweetly. "I'm good," Nevins said. "I got it." I got it. Nevins struck out two big Florida bats, then induced a ground out to end the threat. It was the stuff of legend. "That was some of the best pitching I've ever seen," Eriksen said. "You can't teach that composure," said USF assistant coach Monica Triner, who's also the greatest pitcher in Bulls softball history. "You can't teach that, or heart." Teammates still wonder if Sugar ever even blinked the whole time. "Sara doesn't show you much out there," teammate and roommate Brittany Garvey said. "Actually, after we got the three outs in the sixth inning, my stomach did get a little nauseous," Nevins said. "But when I was out there, I was OK." Nevins grew up in Pinellas Park. She began pitching when she was 9. Her father, Joe, would sit on a bucket and catch her. By the time she reached Pinellas Park High School, she was throwing 65, 67 miles per hour, which is the baseball equivalent of mid-90s heat. All the big college programs wanted her. She chose USF. She wanted to stay close to home, loved the coaching staff, the academics … Joe Nevins said there was more, too. "She rattled off a lot of schools, all the big ones, and said they get to the College World Series all the time," Joe said. "She asked me, 'How great would it be to go to USF and get to a College World Series?' She said that would be history to make it for the first time with this school." Of course, Sara Nevins is the last person to say any of this USF success is about her. That's just Sugar. People will tell you she loves to laugh, but she's shy. She's an observer. She sizes people up. She competed in karate as a youngster. "She was very good," Joe Nevins said. "The only problem we had with her is until you hit her, she wouldn't hit you. As soon as somebody hit her, she'd explode on them and win." Garvey is a reserve catcher and a sophomore like Nevins. Garvey is 5 feet, 2 inches tall. Nevins towers over her. They're bookends. "She's my best friend," Garvey said. "She has a wonderful sense of humor." "On the field, she knows what she needs to do," USF third baseman Jessica Mouse said. "We just let her be. She's not someone you have to coddle. You look at her and think it's going to be OK. It's Sara." Now comes the biggest weekend in USF softball history. It's Sugar time.