It was Christmas Eve, 2007.
University of South Florida softball coach Ken Eriksen already was in a festive holiday mood. Then he received an unexpected gift, a telephone call at home.
It was Sara Nevins, a powerful, painfully shy, unsure-of-herself left-handed pitcher from Pinellas Park High.
“Hi coach, um, I know where I want to go to school ... and I’d really like to commit to USF ... if that’s OK with you,” Nevins said quietly.
Eriksen was stunned.
If that’s OK with me? Is that what she just said?
Straight-faced, he shifted into coach-speak.
“Sara, I think that would be just fine. We would love to have you. We believe you’d do well academically and athletically for us.”
“OK, coach. Thanks. I’m glad that’s over. I can’t wait to play for USF. Bye.”
Eriksen was still stunned.
“I’m still holding the phone in my ear and there was nobody else in the house,” Eriksen said. “So I just started dancing. I’m dancing up a storm. I think I did two backflips, a cartwheel, pulled my back out, had to go to the hospital for a week. I went crazy.
“Then I just got quiet and thought to myself, ‘You know what? This is big. We just went to a different level.’ ”
Truly, since that fateful conversation, USF softball hasn’t been the same.
Sara Nevins, a 6-foot fireball with eight career no-hitters and two perfect games to her credit, has helped the Bulls (41-15) to their third consecutive NCAA Regional appearance and today’s opening-round game against the South Carolina Gamecocks (35-20) in Tallahassee.
Nevins, already a two-time All-American and U.S. National Team member, can register her 100th career victory today. The senior is already the USF record-holder in every significant pitching category and is 66th all-time in NCAA softball with 1,077 strikeouts.
Ultimately, she’s hoping to end her career with USF’s second Women’s College World Series appearance in the past three seasons.
But even if that doesn’t happen, her impact has been undeniable. She’s on the short list of the best athletes to compete for USF — male or female.
She has so many gaudy statistics, so many accolades.
And whether meeting her for the first time or becoming a close teammate, you’d never know that.
“Sara is Sara ... that’s the only way to put it,” USF senior shortstop Kourtney Salvarola said. “She just hasn’t changed much in four years. She’s so calm with that poker face. I think that’s why she’s successful. Whether she strikes you out or you get a single off her, that face never changes.”
“I’d tell you a great Sara story, only there are no Sara stories,” Bulls senior outfielder Ashli Goff said. “I just let her be. I don’t mess with her at all. She does her thing. I love having her on the mound. She’s just, I don’t know, Sara.”
That is quite enough.
“She has a dry sense of humor and she’s really fun to be around,” USF sophomore catcher Lee Ann Spivey said. “It takes a while to see that side. She doesn’t say much.
“One thing I remember when we played at Houston this season. She looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to win this game. I’m doing whatever it takes to win this game.’ I was like, ‘Wow, you want to run through a wall for a pitcher like that.’ When she does speak, everybody stops and listens.”
Bulls assistant coach Monica Triner, a former USF pitcher whose No. 17 was retired by the school, said Nevins dislikes getting attention. She said Nevins wants the credit spread around to her teammates. She hates being singled out.
“But when you accomplish what Sara has accomplished, it’s kind of impossible to fly under the radar,” Triner said.
Nevins, 22, grudgingly speaks about her achievements. She doesn’t like talking about her legacy.
“I don’t want to think about walking off the mound for the last time wearing the green and gold,” Nevins said. “The only thing I hope is it’s a win. I’m not dwelling on the memories right now.”
That is left to her teammates — and Eriksen.
The coach’s favorite Sara story? That’s easy. It was the 2012 NCAA Regional in Gainesville. USF led Florida 1-0, but the Gators had the bases loaded with nobody out in the last inning. Eriksen visited the mound, but Nevins was the first to speak.
“I got it.”
Eriksen, eyebrows raised, said he looked for reassurance from the catcher and infielders.
“They’re all shaking their heads and saying, ‘Yeah, she’s got it ... Sara’s got it,’ ” Eriksen said. “So I shrug my shoulders, walk back to the dugout and, three batters later, it was over. We were headed to the Super Regionals.
“Whatever I imagined when she committed to us, it has been even better. It will be tough to see her go. But she’s not done yet. I can’t wait to see what she’ll come up with next.”