TAMPA — Last summer, Ken Eriksen saw his 2012 USF softball team as a jigsaw puzzle so close to perfection — save one missing piece.
Enter Jessica Mouse, a former standout at Chamberlain High who has been a one-year wonder at third base. The graduate transfer from LSU filled a key spot in Eriksen's lineup, brought a crucial dose of leadership and gave the team postseason experience.
"She's the middle piece of your puzzle," said Eriksen, whose Bulls (45-11) are in the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. "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 the tournament each season with a combined 123 wins. But a month before her senior year, she suffered a fracture in her foot, forcing her to redshirt the 2011 season.
She graduated with a degree in sports administration in May 2011 and, realizing LSU didn't offer a master's degree in her field, chose to come home and study entrepreneurship at USF. (The NCAA allows transfers to play immediately instead of sitting out a season if they have graduated and their school doesn't offer their chosen graduate program.)
Mouse, 23, already had committed to LSU when she moved from New Jersey to Tampa as a high school junior. But two Chamberlain teammates, Gina Kafalas and Stephanie Medina, went on to play for USF. So she knew the team well from visits home. That familiarity, combined with the graduate program she sought and the chance to play 3 miles from home, made USF an easy choice.
"When I knew I wasn't going back (to LSU), the only place I would ever be was here," Mouse said.
Having Mouse at third allowed sophomore Kourtney Salvarola to shift back to her natural position, shortstop. That, in turn, allowed senior Janine Richardson to shift back to centerfield, adding stability to the defense. Mouse also added a reliable bat to USF's lineup. She's hitting .284 with 27 RBIs and is the only Bulls regular with more walks (18) than strikeouts (13).
Eriksen said Mouse has found different ways to win games.
"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," he said. "Then the intangible of leadership adds another six games. You're talking pretty much half your victories are because of solidifying third base."
USF hadn't made the NCAA tournament since 2008, so no current players have experienced an atmosphere as intense as they will in Gainesville this weekend — though the Bulls beat the then-No. 4 Gators there in March. Mouse has tried to prepare them for the double-elimination event. But she said the team's tough schedule — it went 16-8 in games against NCAA-qualifying teams — has it 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 has been pitching. Its 1.26 ERA is second in Division I. But Eriksen also cites stability and an even-keeled personality that has handled both a school-record 19-game win streak and losing six of its final 11 Big East games.
Mouse, he said, has been a big part of that steady journey 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.