TAMPA — His USF softball team had played three grueling, intense, one-run games in barely 25 hours, and in that final inning Saturday, recognizing the significance, coach Ken Eriksen approached the pitcher's circle to talk to his pitcher and infielders.
"All the girls are looking at me like, 'What are you doing here?' " he said, smiling after his team's 50th win of the season. "I was like, 'It's great time to get TV time. What better way than right now?' "
Eriksen will have his share of national airtime next week, as USF — loose and calm in the most pressure-packed of conditions — made history Saturday, outdueling Hofstra and ace pitcher Olivia Galati with a pair of 2-1 wins to earn one of eight spots in softball's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
"It's ridiculous," said first baseman Stephanie Medina, a Chamberlain High grad whose fifth-inning sacrifice fly provided the winning margin. "I don't even know how to explain it. … It's the greatest feeling to know you've played with these girls your whole life. It's so exciting that we're from here, and we get to represent Tampa in our sport."
After losing in 11 innings Friday night to open the best-of-three series, the Bulls needed two wins in one day against a pitcher who had won 32 decisions in a row and had the nation's lowest ERA. The Bulls did that, grinding out a nine-inning win, then closing out the series in seven innings before another capacity crowd of 1,544 at USF Softball Stadium.
"We got her in the humidor today. That stadium, 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon, in late May," Eriksen said. "We practiced in the middle of the day to get ready for these things."
The Bulls open the double-elimination CWS on Thursday against fourth-seeded Oklahoma, which is playing in its seventh World Series.
USF pitchers Sara Nevins (Pinellas Park) and Lindsey Richardson, changing out like tag-team partners, kept Hofstra's hitters in check all day, saving their best work for final outs with runners in scoring position. In the fifth in Game 3, with runners at first and third and one out, Nevins struck out Hofstra's cleanup hitter, then with the bases loaded, got a popout to end the inning. She retired the final seven batters in order, the last out coming from defensive whiz Jessica Mouse at third base to Medina.
"We kept playing. We didn't give up. We didn't let down. Our focus was there 100 percent of the time," Medina said. "They're a great team, and our focus and our ability to stay relaxed and know we had our fans behind us helped us take this win."
Hofstra's Galati finished with 27 innings, throwing 328 pitches over three games, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The first win took three hours and nine innings, with USF getting runs on a Kenshyra Jackson single and a Laura Fountain sacrifice fly in the ninth. Hofstra had the bases loaded and scored a run, but the game ended on a grounder to shortstop, setting up the deciding Game 3.
The Bulls took the lead in that game on a bases-loaded walk in the first, only to see Hofstra tie it on a bases-loaded passed ball in the second. The only other run came on Medina's sacrifice fly, and that was enough for Eriksen.
"To get the right people involved, if you win in the locker room, you have a chance to win on the field," said Eriksen, who 30 years ago was a player on USF baseball's first NCAA tournament team. "We did that this year."
All this from a softball team that until now had only made the Super Region once, in 2006, and hadn't made regions — the round of 64 — since 2008. The Bulls won three times, twice by 1-0, to take the Gainesville region last weekend, then overcame an 11-inning loss Friday night to get the two wins and win the Super Region on Saturday.
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]ay.com or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.