Eriksen: Bulls can 'make a lot of noise nationally'
USF softball opened preseason practice Monday, with the Bulls' season-opening doubleheader against Maine and Florida Gulf Coast on Feb. 10 now just 24 days away, and coach Ken Eriksen is optimistic about his team's potential for improvement as the Bulls seek to end a run of three seasons without making NCAA regionals.
"They've got a great opportunity to make a lot of noise nationally this year," Eriksen said. "If we get the right bounces, we stay healthy, if we do the little things we do, the scoreboard's going to take care of itself. I don't think I have felt as confident in a group of young women to stay together as a team as I do this group in a long, long time. I think this team ranks up there on paper with all the great programs we've had. The pitching is deeper, the speed is better, the power is better, the personnel all the way down from the top to the bottom of the roster is better. On paper, we look great. We've got to translate that over to the end results."
-- First, the Bulls have a top-tier graduate transfer in former LSU third baseman Jessica Mouse, a Chamberlain grad who was a three-year starter for the Tigers. She missed the 2011 season with injury, graduated and decided to play her final college season close to home. She brings NCAA postseason experience and leadership and a veteran bat for the Bulls' lineup.
"She wanted to play her last year in front of her mom and dad here on campus, so it worked out real well," Eriksen said. "You're bringing in a leader right away, somebody who's played at a very high level of softball, somebody with a lot of game experience. It's a spot we needed to fill, so we're very, very fortunate."
Mouse, 23, started 168 games in three seasons at LSU, with a solid .405 on-base percentage in 2010; she showed a clutch bat, in that of her 25 RBIs, 14 came with two outs. Having her at third base allows sophomore Kourtney Salvarola to return to her natural position at shortstop, which in turn allows senior Janine Richardson to return to her natural position in centerfield.
-- Eriksen has his top eight hitters back in terms of batting average -- Salvarola and Richardson, along with senior RF Gina Kafalas (.359), sophomore LF Ashli Goff (.349) and sophomore 1B Stephanie Medina (.336, team-best 8 HRs and 50 RBIs).
"We haven't had this much depth and experienced depth that I can remember," Eriksen said. "It's a nice problem to have. You're trying to have 12 bats fitting into a lineup of nine right now. In the past four or five years, the injury bug has really knocked us out. We haven't had the protection of (bench) hitters that we have right now."
Seniors Alexis Nowell and Laura Fountain enter the season as starters at second base and catcher, though they'll be pushed by younger players as the season progresses.
-- Newcomers? Pennsylvania prep standout D'Anna Devine "can hit anywhere in our lineup and play any position except pitch," bringing speed, power and versatility as a freshman, and junior college transfer Kenshyra Jackson is a former Auburndale star who put up gaudy numbers at Polk State: team highs with a .454 average, 12 home runs and 56 RBIs. "You can look at her as another powerful bat in the middle of the lineup," Eriksen said.
Another freshman, right-hander Sam Greiner, adds a live arm to an already deep rotation. "She fits right in. She can throw against anybody at any time," said Eriksen, who returns sophomore Sara Nevins (15-8, 1.71 ERA), senior Brittany Bowles (6-3, 2.78) and junior Lindsey Richardson (10-6, 2.85) from last season.
The only arm not back from last season is senior Capri Catalano, the former Big East Rookie of the Year, who had been limited by injuries and went 2-3 with a 3.62 ERA last season. She's transferred to play her final college season at Temple.
-- Eriksen likes his speed in the outfield from a defensive perspective, with Richardson, Kafalas and Goff all bringing a range that has challenged him as a coach. "There's not a lot of balls that should be able to fall in this outfield," he said. "For me, I get exhausted as a fungo hitter, just trying to hit the gaps."
-- The Big East preseason poll hasn't come out yet, but USF went 13-5 last season, finishing fourth in the standings and taking a loss to host Louisville in the opening round of the conference tournament. USF went 33-21 overall in 2011, bouncing back well from a 24-29 year in 2010, so it's reasonable that with the same progress this season, the Bulls could be back close to the 44-20 record they had in 2008, the last time they made the NCAA regionals.