Softball: Eriksen still hopeful about NCAAs
USF softball, picked to finish second in the Big East in its preseason poll, is sixth in the conference standings with a 9-9 league mark, but coach Ken Eriksen still feels the Bulls have a chance to advance to the NCAA Regionals next month.
USF (30-20) has sorely missed pitcher Capri Catalano, last year's Big East Newcomer of the Year, with the remaining pitchers combining for a team ERA in conference play (2.86) more than double last season's (1.41). Catalano is out for the season with an injury to her right shoulder.
Senior Cristi Ecks, who nearly died last spring from a heart condition, has made a solid recovery with the lowest conference ERA (1.00) in the Big East, but no other Bulls pitcher has a league ERA under 2.55.
Eriksen points to USF's RPI rating -- currently No. 47 on the NCAA site -- as keeping the Bulls in play for one of 34 at-large berths for the NCAA Regionals. USF has made the NCAAs in five of the last six seasons, but missed the cut in 2007 despite a 44-22 record and 15-5 conference record. In last year's tournament, the highest RPI team with a winning record left out of the NCAA field was No. 45 Kansas (37-19) -- Big East teams Notre Dame (RPI 42) and Louisville (RPI 53) earned at-large berths.
"We have an opportunity right now in the next four games to put things together going into the postseason," Eriksen said. "If we get hot, we're going to make a lot of noise."
Even with a strong finish in its remaining four conference games, USF won't be seeded higher than fifth in the league tournament, which carries an automatic NCAA berth for the Big East champion. Eriksen said he feels an at-large berth is still in play if the Bulls can finish the season strong.
"I think there is, because if you look at the RPI," he said. "There are (30) automatics and (34) at-larges ... we're looking pretty decent. It's in our own hands, and we have an opportunity to win the conference tournament. Get there, win three straight and get some breaks. We're looking forward to it."
To do that, Eriksen will need a young lineup to produce runs when given the opportunity -- the Bulls are third in the Big East in hits, but ninth in RBIs -- and need the pitching staff to showcase the depth Eriksen liked entering the season.
"You're starting four freshmen and a new pitching staff. Completely different team," Eriksen said.
USF used Catalano and senior Courtney Mosch almost exclusively in conference play last year in winning the Big East regular-season crown. WIth both gone this spring and Ecks limited as she returns from a serious heart condition, Eriksen has relied on junior Kristen Gordon (2.68, 2-1) and freshman Candace Howell (2-1, 2.55), with less consistency from freshman Brittany Bowles (1-3, 5.02) and senior Bree Spence (0-3, 5.69).
Eriksen said Ecks has pitched at a high level in her last six or seven starts, and physically she's able to throw more than she was earlier in the season.
"She's the strongest she's been, and she's the type of kid, she's like a Navy SEAL," Eriksen said. "This time of year, she doesn't know what it means to be sore or tired."