Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Colleges

For USF's Sara Nevins, success is a routine matter

TAMPA — Rhythms don't just occur. One doesn't happen upon a groove. Most of the time, reaching that psychological hinterland where excellence and consistency merge requires considerable navigation.

Sara Nevins' journey to that realm is more arduous than most.

Between every inning of every game she pitches, USF's 6-foot senior left-hander huddles with her teammates, enters the dugout through a back entrance, takes two drinks of water from a cup, tosses the cup, wipes her face, sits away from the rest of the team, grabs a ball and starts snapping it into her glove.

"I do that every time, no matter where we are," she said.

For the better part of four springs, that redundant odyssey has led the Bulls' unquestioned ace to a rhythm, the rhythm to a groove. When Sara Ashley Nevins has been in one, arguably no pitcher in a USF jersey ever has been better.

"It's funny to see because people are like, 'Okay, I want to throw like Sara Nevins,' and I'm like, 'She's special. You don't just have that,' " said pitching coach Mo Triner, herself a former Bulls ace who held the program record for victories (92) until Nevins eclipsed it.

"That's not something you just teach."

But it is something you refine. Since arriving from Pinellas Park High in 2010 with a turbo-charged left arm, boundless physical upside and, some say, a second lease on life, she has refined herself directly into USF lore.

She enters this afternoon's NCAA tournament opener against South Carolina as the 30-year-old program's leader in victories (99), saves (20), opponent batting average (.171), strikeouts (1,077), strikeouts per game (9.21) and no-hitters (eight).

So, best in Bulls history?

"That's a really, really great question," said coach Ken Eriksen, whose club (41-15) is among four teams competing at the Tallahassee Region.

"The environment of your times is very important. Was Nolan Ryan the greatest pitcher of his era at the time he retired? Or was Walter Johnson the greatest pitcher of his time? …It's a lot of environmental stuff. Sara Nevins has probably had the best offensive opportunities for a pitcher in a four-year span that we've ever had before."

Long before the pitches, Nevins delivered punches. Her initial athletic pursuit was karate, where she achieved brown-belt status and won a handful of tournaments under the instruction of her dad, Joe.

At the behest of a family friend, she gravitated to T-ball, then softball. Like every other kid, she longed to give pitching a stab.

"So we started pitching (into a) bucket and she beat me up for about two months, and she just didn't stop," said Joe Nevins, a 65-year-old retired masonry contractor. "It was, '10 more pitches dad, 10 more, 10 more.' She was just driven to do it."

At age 9, she got her first chance against live batters in a tournament in Winter Haven, for a travel-ball team called the Rascals. Nevins recalls striking out a lot of kids, but also hitting a kid in the mask and breaking it.

"She was awful," said St. Petersburg Catholic softball coach Tommy Fabian, one of the Rascals coaches. "When she first started, Sara was like most kids that age, her coordination hadn't gotten together. But she wanted to be a pitcher, and she wasn't going to give up."

Ultimately, karate was abandoned as softball segued from a pursuit to a passion.

Joe set up a bullpen in the 3,600-square-foot back yard of his Pinellas Park home, laying down clay for a pitching circle and home-plate area, and erecting a net for a backstop. Sara, universally known as "Sugar" by that time, threw 150-180 pitches there each day, Monday through Thursday.

"When she was 12, she was throwing 60 (mph)," Fabian recalled.

National age-group travel-ball titles with Pinellas-based teams followed. So did catastrophe.

Days before the dawn of her freshman season at Pinellas Park, Sara and three other teammates plopped themselves atop a teammate's Volkswagen Jetta for the two-minute drive from the school's criminal justice building to the softball field. Sara and another girl were sitting on the back. Two others sat on the hood.

"It was really ridiculous," Sara recalled.

Joe, sitting in his truck at the field, saw the whole thing.

"I believe she saw my truck and said, 'Oh, boy,' and just figured she could slide off the car," he said. "She didn't realize the car was going that fast. She just came right off, did a flip, and I ran all the way down there."

When he arrived, the youngest of he and wife Wanda's six kids was lying in a pool of her own blood, in and out of consciousness. According to Joe, at some point during the ambulance drive to Bayfront Medical Center, Sara lost consciousness and the ambulance lights were activated.

She had sustained four skull fractures and a concussion. None of the fractures was deep enough to cause bleeding of the brain, Joe said, but doctors initially projected her to miss her freshman season.

Two weeks later, she was pitching again. Armed with Tylenol to help alleviate headaches when she ran, Sara launched one of the most sparkling prep careers in Pinellas history. By the end of it, she had recorded 1,160 strikeouts and had led the Patriots to the first Pinellas County Athletic Conference and district titles in program history.

Today, some subtle paralysis on the right side of her face remains the only long-term effect. "We were very, very lucky," Joe said. "She wouldn't drive until her senior year (of high school). It scared her so bad that she just didn't want to drive anymore."

But she never stopped being driven.

The same brain that was nearly dislodged seven years ago has evolved into one of her biggest assets. Triner says Nevins has learned to study hitters instead of trying to overpower them, to dismiss a poor outing or sequence instead of dwelling on it. Meantime, she has refined her changeup.

Not her routine. Today, between innings and even between pitches, she'll snap the ball into her glove, perhaps until her right fingers bruise.

It's all about finding a groove. Along the way, Sugar found greatness.

"Sara Nevins was phenomenal before she got here, and Sara Nevins has developed into a great pitcher and learned about the game and learned about pitching a lot more," Triner said. "And we've taught her several things, but she was bound to be very successful no matter who taught her or where she went."

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