TAMPA — For a surreal 90 or so seconds, Erica Nunn lacks command. On this overcast afternoon inside the USF Softball Stadium, nothing is breaking for USF's 5-foot-10 left-hander.
Except her voice. Nunn's lips quiver and her brown eyes moisten as she ponders the waning stages of her softball life. A career that has taken her from travel-ball ridicule to the Division I postseason likely will conclude before May does.
After that, it's postgraduate work in analytics at North Carolina State. No pro ball, no national team pursuits, nada. Nunn doesn't regret her choice to further her education back in her home state, but, well, you try bidding farewell to a passion and peer group.
"It's definitely hard," said Nunn, pausing to regain herself as tears fill the corners of her eyes. "I had to turn down a lot (of softball opportunities) to go to school. … I would like to prolong (this season) as long as possible."
Literally, USF's postseason fate could rest in her hands — especially the pitching one. The Bulls' resident analytical mind has produced her best season essentially by thinking and not thinking at the right times.
The American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year, she enters Friday's NCAA tournament opener against South Carolina with sparkling numbers in the circle (27-10, 1.65 ERA, 208⅓ IP) and surprisingly sturdy offensive totals (.374, 10 doubles, four home runs, 30 RBIs).
Only a season ago, she asked coach Ken Eriksen to let her focus on pitching and didn't register an at-bat. This year, her batting average and on-base percentage (.444) both rank third on the team.
"I have definitely surprised myself," said Nunn, her voice eliciting a hint of Tobacco Road twang.
"I think I surprised myself more because I hit the best when I don't think, or I don't try and do too much. It's just nice to be able to provide for the team other than on the mound, and I think that's pretty cool."
A different mentality has accompanied her to the pitching rubber. Roughed up during a daunting early stretch that included four opponents who earned top-13 NCAA seeds, Nunn rallied to post a 0.74 ERA in regular-season conference play.
"This year it's her stuff combined with her tenacity," Eriksen said.
"In the past it was her stuff. But holy smokes, I mean, the eyes are in the front of the head right now when she's pitching. In the past it was like, 'I'm gonna flip this up there and let's see what happens.' But right now she's got a plan on every pitch, and that's a huge, huge difference."
The outset of Nunn's career wasn't exactly a harbinger of fastpitch acclaim. Raised in the Raleigh suburb of Apex, N.C., Nunn, who began playing travel ball at age 9, recalls being told she'd never reach the D-I level.
"I barely made my first travel ball team and … I played leftfield or rightfield," she said. "They'd just stick me out there and every time I hit, I bunted because I couldn't hit."
A half-decade later, she was turning heads at a USF softball camp and sharpening her pitching chops under the private tutelage of another lefty, former Bulls star (and U.S. national team member) Leigh Ann Ellis.
"She could hit. I was like, 'Wow,' " Eriksen recalled.
"Spun the ball really, really well at that age. Mechanics, she was kind of a like a wild colt with elbows and knees flying everywhere, and a different type of landing position. But you could tell she had some good stuff."
Today, that stuff is pro-caliber. Eriksen said if Nunn hadn't opted for graduate school she would have had an opportunity with Team USA and likely would have been chosen in the first two rounds of the National Pro Fastpitch draft.
Hence the emotion Nunn betrays on this day. This is one tournament where pitching will be such sweet sorrow. She's just hoping her farewell to softball will evolve into a long goodbye.
"She's made a life choice right now and I can't blame her; that's gonna pay the bills," Eriksen said. "But she's still passionate. That's why you probably saw her teary-eyed, 'cause it's set in that the end is near or whatever. But she's one of the most passionate players I've ever coached."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.