Softball: Bulls glad to get Ecks, Spence back
Six months before softball season, USF coach Ken Eriksen has good reason to be excited, knowing that two of his most experienced arms -- seniors Cristi Ecks and Bree Spence -- will return to the Bulls after missing part or all of last season.
The biggest news is the return of Ecks, who collapsed during a practice on March 31 and had to be resuscitated -- literally saved -- by team trainers. She missed the rest of the season after having a cardioverter defibrillator implanted, but has since been cleared by her doctors and USF to return.
"It's real exciting," Eriksen said. "To have her deemed healthy was a mental boost for this team's impetus into this year. Everybody's question has been 'Where is she at? What's going on?' She's a big part of the team, as a person and a pitcher."
Eriksen said Ecks' priority now is getting back in shape physically, but he's confident she can work her way back to the dominating form she showed in her first three seasons.
"It's status quo, as March 31 was," Eriksen said. "No limitations, no over-exuberance by trainers asking her every day how (she's) feeling. She's passed stressed tests, all this other stuff, with flying colors."
Spence missed the entire 2008 season recovering from surgery on her left (non-throwing) shoulder, but has also been cleared to return, Eriksen said. Spence won 44 games in her first two seasons at USF, and Eriksen is hoping to see junior Kristen Gordon return to her dominating 2007 form after she struggled through her sophomore season.
"Kristen Gordon worked really hard this summer to get back where she was effective," Eriksen said.
Eriksen also returns sophomore Capri Catalano, who went 17-1 with a team-best 176 strikeouts in a dominating freshman season, and has another ace-in-waiting in freshman Candace Howell of Bartow. Again, with five arms available, Eriksen should have ridiculous pitching depth as a team strength.
"Needless to say, I'm sleeping very well at night," Eriksen said. "Where I'm at on Feb. 5, I couldn't tell you right now. We have three proven starters and two people who pitched very well at the Division I level."
Another key veteran who missed last season on a medical redshirt, first baseman Ashley Bullion, is making good progress following surgery this summer on her hip labrum. Eriksen put her at 80 percent in her rehabilitation and said she is expected to be fully recovered by December. Catcher Liz Howell, recovering from rotator cuff surgery in spring, is also expected to back by December.
A third player who missed last season, outfielder Carly Griffin, a key bat in USF's lineup in 2005 and 2006, has graduated and will not use her final year of eligibility, Eriksen said. Junior infielder Brittany Villa, who played sparingly last season, will also not be playing this season.
Eriksen said he expects immediate impact from several freshmen, part of "what might be the best blue-chip class we've ever had." In addition to Howell, there's centerfielder Janine Richardson, shortstop Laura Fountain, infielder Alexis Nowell and speedy outfielder Gina Kafalas. "Every one of them has a chance to make an impact," Eriksen said. "The future bodes well."
Individual workouts start Aug. 25, with the first fall team practice coming Sept. 9, a day that will bring Ecks back to the team in a more tangible way.
"That's the first day that we're all on the same field together," Eriksen said. "I think that first day, everybody's going to breathe a lot easier."