TAMPA — A year ago, when USF made the Women's College World Series, the Bulls leaned heavily on their pitching staff, which finished second in the nation with a 1.23 ERA.
Twice during the NCAA tournament the Bulls won by 1-0 scores, and two more times in the postseason by 2-1 margins. USF had been shut out in the first game of the Big East softball tournament, and its season ended with a 1-0 loss to LSU in Oklahoma City.
As the Bulls begin another postseason in hosting the Big East tournament, there is that same dominating pitching, again with the nation's No. 2 staff ERA. But the Bulls have added much-needed power, with 44 home runs after totaling 27 last season.
Leading that surge is junior shortstop Kourtney Salvarola, who again has the team's best batting average (.360) and 13 home runs after totaling nine in her first two college seasons.
"I don't even know how to explain what she's done," first baseman Stephanie Medina said. "She's a phenomenal shortstop, an even better hitter. The progress she's made in the past three years is absolutely unbelievable. I think back to our freshman year, us coming in together, she's become so much better, as a player, as a person, a better leader in everything."
Salvarola, a 5-foot-5 leadoff hitter, sees a more mature approach to the game, keeping an even keel and not dwelling on a bad at-bat or other mistake.
"As a freshman I would strike out then pout about it — be a freshman," she said. "Sophomore year, I'd be upset about but try not to be upset about it. Now, junior year, if I strike out, if I don't get a hit, anything where I don't do my job I'm more, 'It happens. How can I learn from it?' I went from the pouting stage to the trying-not-to-pout stage. Now I'm in the learning stage."
Coach Ken Eriksen is just as pleased to see humility in the 21-year-old, not getting too caught up in a huge game, like when she hit three home runs against Rutgers, including a walkoff shot in the bottom of the ninth.
"(She's) not taking the lows so low and not taking the highs of a three-home-run game, like 'I'm all that and a bag of chips,' " said Eriksen, happy with the leadership from juniors such as Salvarola, Medina and outfielder Ashli Goff. "She's very, very steady. … Those junior leaders, you can see that steadiness that goes on, that it's a serious business and we're going to take it one pitch at a time, one game at a time. They've been great mentors for those young kids on our team."
Salvarola came to USF from Arnold, Md., as one of the nation's top recruits, visiting national powers such as Alabama. She has made Tampa her home; her parents moved just five minutes from campus. They're at every home game, and get together for spaghetti dinners every Sunday.
The Bulls begin their postseason hoping to return to Oklahoma City after getting their first taste of the College World Series a year ago.
"I think in the back of all of our minds, that's our main goal. We all want to get back there," said Salvarola, an elementary education major who works two days a week with a fourth-grade classroom as part of her studies. "We want to get back there and do better than we did last year. It's a huge motivator."
nevins honored: USF junior Sara Nevins was honored Wednesday as the conference's pitcher of the year. Nevins (22-7, team-high 230 strikeouts), from Pinellas Park, was also a unanimous first-team pick, joining Salvarola. Third baseman Kenshyra Jackson made the second team, pitcher Lindsey Richardson made the third team. Notre Dame pitcher/infielder Laura Winter was player of the year.