Friday, January 19, 2018
Colleges

No doubting USF softball's grit as AAC tourney starts

TAMPA — At this stage, she might be the only healthy person on the USF softball roster. To be sure, she's the most consistent. Seemingly every day, home or on the road, team trainer Allie Palmer delivers.

It's what she delivers — rehab update one day, injury report the next — that has veteran coach Ken Eriksen avoiding Palmer like strep throat.

"She thinks I hate her," he says.

Dusk has settled on the most injury-besieged season of Eriksen's prosperous coaching life. Somehow, darkness hasn't. The Bulls enter today's opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament alternately throbbing, grimacing, hobbling and aching.

Yet still breathing. At 32-23, and with a half-decent RPI (52), they possess a legitimate shot at their fifth NCAA Tournament berth in the past six seasons.

"You've got to give 'em a lot of credit," Eriksen said.

"I'd say that we're just kind of grinding it out," junior centerfielder Astin Donovan said. "We don't want to be the team that just makes excuses and says, 'Oh, we had a bunch of injuries, so that's why it was a rough year.' "

Donovan and Plant City High alumnus Kristen Wyckoff, the Bulls' top two hitters, still are recovering from fractured left hands sustained earlier in the year.

One-time starting shortstop Cassidy Boyle has been relegated to pinch-hitting due to a rotator-cuff ailment. Outfielder AnaMarie Bruni fractured a finger Sunday at Houston. Right-handed pitcher JoJo McGill missed two weeks with strained ankle ligaments.

Starting catcher Mia Fung — a former Strawberry Crest star — tore an ACL at the season's outset. Fung's backup, Amber Atkinson, was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. As a result, third-stringer Morgan Gross has caught every inning of nearly every game.

"We've been with one catcher since the third game of the season," Eriksen said.

Toss in the stunning mid-February dismissal of 2016 AAC Player of the Year Juli Weber (for an unspecified violation), and some might suggest Eriksen has pulled off the best coaching job of his 21 seasons.

But he defers to leaders such as Wyckoff, who opted to have seven screws and a plate inserted into her left hand two days after a hard slide into first base.

Only 17 games later, Wyckoff returned to the lineup, but not after presiding over a players-only meeting in the locker room in early March. Self-pity was checked at the door as Wyckoff and other leaders stressed unity amid the adversity.

"For (Wyckoff) to say, 'You know what, I'm a little (ticked) off right now,' that's when things began to change in respect of grinding it out," Eriksen said.

"When she got injured, Astin was out at the time also. All of the sudden it was like, 'Oh my god, (Wyckoff) is out, what are we gonna do?' What do you guys mean what are we gonna do? We're gonna play ball."

The resilience has especially surfaced down the stretch. Fourth-seeded USF enters the league tournament in Greenville, N.C., having won 11 of its past 15. On Wednesday, Wyckoff — whom Eriksen said is hurting a lot more than she lets on — was named to the all-ACC first team with pitcher Cheyenne Eggens.

Donovan and Academy at the Lakes alumnus Lauren Evans, moved to shortstop out of necessity, made the second team. Sore hands and all, Wyckoff and Donovan enter the tournament hitting .414 and .362, respectively.

"We've overcome a lot," Donovan said. "And I think that kind of tells the story for itself."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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