Bulls winning with low scores, high chemistry
TAMPA -- They keep the scores low, grind out wins late and are surging toward their best record ever.
It's not USF's men's basketball team, but rather its softball counterpart, as Ken Eriksen's squad is off to a 26-5 start, matching the program's best record at this point and looking like another Bulls team poised to return to NCAA postseason play.
"The identity of our team is not very far off from what you just witnessed in our basketball program," Eriksen said Thursday, preparing for USF's Big East opener at home Friday against Rutgers. "We're built around our defense and pitching, and we play ugly offense. We can beat you with a walk-off home run, beat you with a stolen base, beat you with a suicide squeeze. It's a team I don't think you can prepare for well."
As expected, the pitching has been dominant, with a Big East-best 0.97 staff ERA, well down from 2.42 last season. Opponents are hitting just .184 against the Bulls, who have rotated three pitchers to great success. Sophomore Sara Nevins, who threw a no-hitter and perfect game in back-to-back starts last week, is 13-2 with a 0.62 ERA with 152 strikeouts -- the next-closest Big East pitcher has 107, and she's also leading the league in wins and saves (4). Freshman Sam Greiner is 7-3 with a 1.24 ERA, and junior Lindsey Richardson, who has been held out due to tightness in her neck/shoulder area, is 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA; by comparison, Nevins led the staff last year with a 1.71.
That pitching has allowed USF to win when its offense isn't clicking -- the Bulls are 11-3 when scoring two runs or less, including four 1-0 victories. This past weekend saw walk-off wins in back-to-back days, and Eriksen pointed out that of USF's five losses, games against Florida and Loyola Marymount ended with the winning runs on base for the Bulls.
"They're not fazed by a lot of crazy things," Eriksen said. "You have that mentality where it's 'If you make me walk the plank, I'll jump off, go to the other side and pull the plug so the boat goes down.' They're resilient and resourceful and they have a lot of confidence going on right now because they have good pitching."
Offensively, the Bulls have found a power stroke missing last season -- after totaling 17 home runs in 53 games last season, they now have 15 in their first 31 games, with a team batting average of .283 that's down just one point from last year. Newcomers have meshed well in the lineup, with Kenshyra Jackson hitting .321 with a team-best 21 RBIs and LSU transfer Jessica Mouse hitting .303 with 14 RBIs.
The Bulls have 54 steals, 17 more than the next-closest Big East team, and senior Gina Kafalas has been steady at the top of the lineup, hitting .360 after leading the team with a .359 mark last season. The Bulls have some depth concerns at the plate -- after the 10 players Eriksen has used primarily this season (with senior Alexis Nowell and freshman D'Anna Devine splitting time at second), the remaining bench is 4-for-53 for a .075 batting average.
USF is ranked 22nd in both major polls, with only Louisville (13/14) ahead in the Big East. Louisville is undefeated at 24-0 and hitting .350 as a team, but the Bulls have faced a tougher schedule. The Bulls get the Cardinals with a doubleheader on the road April 18, and because the Big East has teams only playing eight of their 11 opponents, USF won't face DePaul (#25 in coaches poll) in the regular season.
Eriksen hopes to have Richardson back soon, waiting to see her pitch successful bullpen sessions on consecutive days -- he hasn't had to rush her return because Nevins and Greiner have pitched so well. As the team opens Big East play this weekend, Eriksen likes the chemistry and focus in his dugout as much as any other aspects of the team's success so far.
"If you don't win in the locker room, you're not going to win on the ball field," Eriksen said. "That's what this team has done. They've won in the locker room, and that's an amazing feat."