TAMPA — Ball in hand, batter staring her down, Sara Nevins was supremely confident in the pitcher's circle, unflappable in her focus, oblivious to everything around her.
And she was only 9 years old.
"She's always been that way," said Tommy Fabian, who worked with USF softball's ace pitcher as a personal coach from age 9 until she was 14. "She doesn't get agitated. She's very calm all the time. Nothing bothers the girl. And yet, when she first started pitching, she wasn't real coordinated. She's come a long way. She's probably worked as hard as anybody you could think of to be what she is."
Nevins is now 20, and has led USF to its first-ever College World Series, starting Thursday afternoon against Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. She ranks among the national leaders in ERA, strikeouts and victories, and if there's an air of invincibility to the 6-foot sophomore, just ask her about the time she fell off the back of a teammate's car on the way to practice, broke four bones in her skull and spent a week in the hospital with a concussion. Doctors initially told her she could be out three months; she pitched two weeks later.
"It was dumb, but I learned my lesson," Nevins said of the 2007 accident during her freshman year at Pinellas Park, one of the few things that has taken her away from the sport she loves.
Joe Nevins remembers bringing his daughter home from the hospital, only to have her insist on being at practice that very day, even knowing she couldn't participate. Her coach wouldn't let her dress for a game until she brought written consent from her doctor, which she promptly brought back in time for a key game against rival Countryside. Another time, a coach noticed a slight limp as Nevins rounded third base in a game, only to find out she'd been playing with a fractured toe — on her plant foot — again unwilling to let anything, even a serious injury, keep her from playing.
"That's just the way she is," her father said. "She's just a competitor."
Nevins and fellow pitcher Lindsey Richardson have kept the Bulls in low-scoring games, with a pair of 1-0 wins and two more 2-1 victories in the postseason. Nevins is as modest as she is dominating, saying her USF teammates share the same toughness and passion for playing, and the attitude has permeated the clubhouse all season, long before the Bulls knew elimination was a loss or two away.
"You always make sure you play every game out like it's your last," said Nevins, who has actually improved in the postseason, with a 0.79 ERA in six NCAA tournament games and 50 strikeouts in 35 1/3 innings.
She has the biggest week of her softball life ahead in Oklahoma City, but she won't be done with softball this summer when the Bulls finish. She and USF teammate Janine Richardson have been invited to Ohio on June 10-12 to try out for the U.S. National team, which will play in Oklahoma City next month, and again for the World Cup of Softball.
USF coach Ken Eriksen took a commitment from Nevins as a high school sophomore, a pledge that helped the Bulls secure other recruits who shared the coach's optimism of what the Bulls could become. In two seasons, Nevins has the Bulls in Oklahoma City, still unflappable in the face of everything around them.
"Everybody in the stands is nail-biting," Eriksen said during his team's three-game Super Regional series with Hofstra, "and the least nervous people in the ballpark were in the two dugouts."