TAMPA — Two of the nation's top college softball pitchers square off at 7 tonight as USF hosts Hofstra in Game 1 of an NCAA Super Region, meaning runs — even one — will be at a premium.
USF coach Ken Eriksen's response to the challenge is to search for every advantage, including the religious use of speedy pinch-runners.
Courtney Goff, Ilaura Reeves and Stephanie Juergens have combined for one hit all season but scored 34 runs, thriving in a small, specialized role.
"This late in the season, the games are going to be 1-0, 2-1, really close games," said Reeves, a sophomore from Alaska who has scored 12 runs. "If we can get that one run to score, that could mean the game for us."
In softball, pinch-runners do not have to permanently replace those they run for. An example came Sunday, when USF knocked off host Florida 1-0 to win the region tournament.
First baseman Stephanie Medina led off the fourth with a double. Juergens, a junior walk-on from Largo's Osceola High who has four at-bats and six runs, entered as a pinch-runner. She moved to third on Janine Richardson's bunt and scored one out later on Kenshyra Jackson's infield single.
After the inning, Medina returned to play first.
Juergens's best skill is speed. She went 39-for-41 on stolen bases last year at State College of Florida in Bradenton, and she's 7-for-7 this season.
"It's awesome to contribute to the team; to be able to score that run and know I'm supporting the team," Juergens said. "Your mind's racing, but you have to remain calm, to pay attention to your coach's signs. My heart was pumping so fast (Sunday), and I was so nervous. But I knew we were going to get it done."
Goff, Juergens and Reeves have combined to go 17-for-20 on stolen bases. To stay ready, they often run between innings. They wait with helmet in hand when certain teammates are batting, knowing a hit means they'll be called upon.
"You have to be ready at all times," said Goff, a graduate of Tampa's Sickles High who has 16 runs and whose twin sister, Ashli, is the Bulls' starting leftfielder. "We go over baserunning a lot. At the beginning of the year, we have practices where for a half-hour or more we just go over baserunning in situations, taking the specific angles.
"You're not as nervous on the bases because you know exactly what to do in every situation. (Eriksen has) gone over everything. We know what he expects from us."
Eriksen is like Rays manager Joe Maddon, reveling in the details.
That means using as much of his bench as the rules allow. (He objects to the NCAA postseason limit of 20 players, meaning two reserves can't dress.)
"He's like a mastermind, doing a little puzzle in his head," shortstop Kourtney Salvarola said of Eriksen. "He has everything set up, and we trust that he has a plan for everything.
"We've had games where all our pinch-runners have come in, stolen a base, saw a pitch in the dirt and got a base. They always come up huge. Without those pinch-runners, we may not have been as fortunate in winning so many games."
USF's Sara Nevins and Hofstra's Olivia Galati are elite pitchers with miniscule ERAs and a combined 663 strikeouts. Pinch-runners are one way Eriksen likes to earn a run. And if it's late in a close game this weekend, he won't hesitate to put speed on the base paths.
"I'm always willing to go out on a limb to get the fruit. That's where it's at," Eriksen said. "Those are all calculated, educated situations. They're not fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, wish-this-happens and so forth.
"If you understand the rules, you can take advantage of anything."