Eriksen to throw Ecks in tourney opener
USF softball coach Ken Eriksen has an interesting decision to make in the single-elimination Big East tournament, which starts Thursday morning in Louisville. Needing a strong showing for any chance at making an NCAA regional, should he throw his best pitcher, senior Cristi Ecks, in an opening-round game Thursday against fourth-seeded Syracuse, or save her for what would likely be a Friday showdown with top-seeded DePaul?
Eriksen said Tuesday that he can't look past his first opponent, so he'll give the ball to Ecks, the Big East ERA champ this season, for Thursday's opener against Syracuse.
"There is no DePaul right now. It's a one-day championship. One game, one day," Eriksen said. "There's no holding back, no thinking about the next day."
Ecks' ERA in conference play is a run better than any other USF pitcher, and she held her own against DePaul's potent lineup on April 11, as the Bulls led 4-2 after her five innings in Chicago. The Blue Demons got three runs in the last two innings off four USF relievers and escaped with a 5-4 win.
Ecks wasn't as dominant in the second half of the Big East season, however. In her first four starts, she went 4-0 with a 0.28 ERA -- just one earned run in 24.2 innings -- with two complete games and another outing one out short of a complete game. After those four starts, USF was 7-2 in Big East play, but since, the Bulls have gone 5-8. Ecks hasn't gotten a victory in her last four starts, hasn't made it past the sixth inning, and has a 2.10 ERA -- still solid, just not as good as earlier.
Eriksen isn't sure who he'd come back with Friday if the Bulls beat Syracuse -- his most consistent pitcher of late has been freshman Candace Howell, who has a 2.13 ERA in league play. She's been even better down the stretch, with a 0.72 ERA in her last six appearances, but none of those outings has been longer than 2.1 innings, so Eriksen will likely need the right combination of his other options: junior Kristen Gordon, freshman Brittany Bowles and senior Bree Spence.
USF has an interesting draw in Syracuse, the only Big East team the Bulls didn't play this season. USF traveled to Syracuse but had their doubleheader cancelled by rain, and the two teams finished with identical 12-10 league records. Both struggled against the league's top three teams (DePaul, Notre Dame and Louisville) -- USF went 0-6 against those three, while Syracuse went 1-5, splitting its series with Louisville. Both went 8-2 against the five bottom Big East teams that didn't make the conference tournament, so despite being the middle seeds, they're just 4-8 against the eight teams in Louisville. If either is to make it to Saturday's final, they'll have to beat teams they haven't beaten before ...
-- Three Bulls made all-conference honors as the league handed out its honors Wednesday night in Louisville -- outfielder Britta Giddens earned first-team honors for the third year in a row, and freshman Janine Richardson joined her on the first team in her rookie season. Catcher Cat Olnick was named to the third team.
-- Baseball, struggling for the past two months with midweek games, got a reprieve in Jacksonville on Wednesday as their game against North Florida was suspended by rain and lightning with the Bulls down 7-6 in the fifth inning. The game will be resumed when the two teams meet for a scheduled game in Tampa next week -- certainly a better scenario for USF than had the game been finished in Jacksonville. The Bulls now head to Notre Dame with a 2.5-game lead in the Big East and six league games to play.