USF eyes return to Women's College World Series
For the University of South Florida softball team, there's a clear goal. The Bulls want a return to the Women's College World Series and another shot at the national championship.
But that destination requires a journey. And in taking the first steps, the Bulls can make some history. They are shooting to win the program's first Big East Conference Tournament, which begins Thursday at the USF Softball Stadium.
The No. 2-seeded Bulls (40-14, 18-3) are 4-6 all-time in conference-tournament play. Their best finish was runner-up in 2008. If USF sweeps through three games, it earns the Big East's automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals.
“Getting the chance to host the conference tournament is special,'' USF coach Ken Eriksen said. “It's comfortable. The routines are the same. You have the home crowd. The confines here make it conducive for the kids to feel at home.
“That being said, we've got to come out and play. Nothing is given to you.''
USF realized that in the early season, when it earned a No. 10 preseason national ranking, then stumbled to a 6-10 start. That wasn't expected when the Bulls returned with several key players in the lineup, plus a well-stocked pitching staff, led by Sara Nevins and Lindsey Richardson.
No one panicked.
“People from the outside might have been saying, 'What's going on?' but we knew we were fine,'' Bulls first baseman Stephanie Medina said. “We didn't acknowledge we were in a big funk. We were losing close ones, a hit here, a diving catch there.
“Every team goes through a storm. We knew if we stepped back, the storm would keep going. But if we kept fighting through it, we'd be fine.''
With Nevins (22-7, 1.06 ERA), Richardson (11-4, 1.20) and Sam Greiner (4-1, 1.55) at the top of the Big East's pitching statistics, pressure was lifted from USF's offense. Still, there were flashes, particularly from shortstop Kourtney Salvarola (.360, 13 home runs, 41 RBIs).
“I have no worries with this group,'' Eriksen said. “They've been through the regionals, the super regionals, gone to the World Series, played in front of 20,000 people. They know every inning is important. They know how to do the little things. And I think they've learned the inner calmness that allows you to play your best.''
“A game is a game, whether we play Team USA or whoever,'' Medina said. “It's a softball game. We have to play seven innings. We have to get 21 outs, regardless of who we're playing and where we're at.''
Being at home, though, has its advantages.
“Just not having to travel is big,'' Bulls third baseman Kenshyra Jackson said. “Not having any potential inconveniences.''
“It's nice to have the home crowd, but it's also nice to have the home infield,'' Salvarola said. “I love our infield. We're very blessed to have this stadium and after we travel around, we realize how fortunate we are to have these facilities. We know the field, the grass, the surroundings. It's the comforts of home. It's an advantage.''
Now the Bulls must capitalize on it.
Big East honors Nevins was named Big East Pitcher of the Year on Wednesday. Nevins and Salvarola were unanimous selections for the All-Big East first team.
Jackson was named to the second team, while Richardson was selected for the third team.
Notre Dame's Laura Winter was named Big East Player of the Year. She led the league in pitching victories (14), while hitting nine home runs with 37 RBIs and a .922 slugging percentage. Louisville led all schools with four first-team selections.
The honors were selected by the league's head coaches, who were not allowed to vote for their own players.