Senior Mouse completes NCAA-bound USF softball
TAMPA -- Last summer, Ken Eriksen saw his 2012 USF softball team as a jigsaw puzzle so close to perfection, save that one missing piece.
Enter Jessica Mouse, a former Chamberlain standout who has been a one-year wonder for the Bulls, a graduate transfer from LSU who filled a key spot in Eriksen's lineup card, brought a crucial dose of leadership and gave the team the familiarity of NCAA postseason experience.
"She's the middle piece of your puzzle," said Eriksen, whose Bulls (45-11) are back in NCAA regionals for the first time in four years, playing Central Florida on Friday at 3:30 p.m. in Gainesville. "You can't put a value on what she's done, as far as leadership and bringing this team together."
Mouse started nearly every game in three years at LSU, making NCAA regionals each season with a combined 123 wins. But a month before her senior year, she suffered a rare injury known as a Lisfranc fracture in her foot, forcing her to take a redshirt for the 2011 season. She graduated with a degree in sport administration last May, and realizing that LSU didn't offer a Master's degree in her field, chose to come home to Tampa as a graduate transfer studying entrepreneurship at USF.
Mouse had already been committed to LSU when she moved from New Jersey to Tampa as a high school junior, but two of her Chamberlain teammates, Gina Kafalas and Stephanie Medina, played for USF, so she knew the team well from visits home from Baton Rouge. That familiarity, combined with the graduate program she sought and the chance to play three miles from home, made USF an easy choice.
"When I knew I wasn't going back there, the only place I would ever be was here," the 23-year-old said.
For Eriksen, having Mouse at third allowed sophomore Kourtney Salvarola to shift back to her natural position at shortstop, which allowed senior Janine Richardson to shift back to centerfield, adding stability to the defensive lineup. She added a reliable bat in USF's lineup, hitting .284 with 27 RBIs; she's the only Bulls regular with more walks (18) than strikeouts (13) this season. Eriksen said she's found different ways to win games for USF all season.
"I've never really had a third baseman before who won six games with her glove and another six games with her bat in a year, at least," he said. "Then the intangible leadership, add another six games. You're talking pretty much half your victories are because of solidifying third base."
USF hadn't made NCAA regionals since 2008, so none of the current Bulls had experienced the intense atmosphere they'll have in Gainesville, where the Bulls got a huge regular-season win at then-No. 4 Florida in March. Mouse has tried to prepare them for the double-elimination event, but she said the team's tough schedule -- the Bulls went 16-8 in games against NCAA-qualifying teams -- has them ready.
"This has been a phenomenal year, and the chemistry on our team has a lot to do with that," she said. "When girls get along and are focused, we can do great things. We've done well, but we're not done yet. We know what's ahead of us. As long as we can stay focused and work on the little things, we'll be set."
USF's strength this season has been dominating pitching, with a 1.26 staff ERA that ranks as the second-best in Division I softball. But Eriksen also points to the stability of his team, at an even-keeled personality that has handled both a record 19-game win streak and a rough stretch that saw them lose six of their final 11 Big East games. Mouse, he said, has been a big part of that steady journey back to the postseason, giving the Bulls the little things they needed to find that success.
"She was the right dose of salt to make everything taste really, really well," Eriksen said.