Friday, December 15, 2017
Colleges

USF Bulls softball coach Ken Eriksen focuses on details on his way to College World Series

Hours after most coaches have called it a night, Ken Eriksen remains in his office, poring over video of opponents, trying to find that pitch they can't hit, that tiny defensive weakness. The video is muted, but USF's softball coach hardly sits in silence.

"(The assistant coaches) will tell you, 'What is he listening to now? Is that Led Zeppelin? What is that going on up there?' " Eriksen said.

"The music goes on. And I'm watching, and I'm rocking. What better way to get your senses going? Zeppelin's on the playlist. Johnny Cougar's on the playlist; Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. We've got it all. You go through all the genres there are. As long as it's music and as long as it's got a beat, I'm pretty good with it."

When the music stops, Eriksen has a plan. It's a formula that has helped USF reach the pinnacle of its sport, the College World Series in Oklahoma City, where it opens play at 1 p.m. today against Oklahoma. Eriksen admits there is a craziness to his methodology, but it's hard to argue with his results.

"My wife calls me the idiot savant of softball," said Eriksen, 51, in his 16th season as Bulls coach. "I don't know if that's a compliment. I don't even know if she said savant."

Watch a USF softball game and you'll see an intricate exploitation of the nooks and crannies of the NCAA rule book, dizzying even when Eriksen explains it. In Saturday's Game 2 of the Super Region against Hofstra, facing elimination, Eriksen brought star pitcher Sara Nevins into the game in such a way that allowed for unlimited toggling between her and Lindsey Richardson, using the lefty and righty, respectively, as situations dictated.

In doing so, he had to keep Nevins in the batting order even though she struck out on three pitches on both of her previous at-bats of the season.

His rationale was that the No. 1 priority was keeping Hofstra scoreless, even if it meant rally-killing outs for his offense. (Nevins struck out twice.)

The move paid off as USF won 2-1 in nine innings, then won the deciding Game 3, also 2-1.

"He's almost on the verge of being obsessive. He thinks about it all the time," said assistant Stacy Heintz, who has coached with Eriksen for 13 seasons. "He's not afraid to text me very late: 'I thought of this!' He's constantly trying to think of ways we can get better. He knows the rule book better than any person I know. He is the rule book."

Eriksen came to USF as a baseball player. He was part of the first team to make the NCAA regions, in 1982 coached by Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. After graduating, he played fastpitch softball for seven years with the Clearwater Bombers and found his niche coaching the sport, taking over USF in 1997.

USF baseball coach Lelo Prado has known Eriksen since he played at the University of Tampa while Eriksen played at USF, regularly meeting in fall exhibitions. The two have remained friends, and Prado said Eriksen ducks into his dugout during games "to relax."

"We pick each other's brains. I'll ask him, 'Hey, why do you play the third baseman on the line like that?' And he'll explain it," Prado said. "We spend a lot of time talking about players, about how to motivate kids. He's never afraid to try something. He's done an incredible job."

Eriksen's success has carried him far beyond USF. He was an assistant for the U.S. gold-medal team at the 2004 Olympics, and he is its head coach this year (though softball no longer is an Olympic sport). He has won 694 games with the Bulls, and this year marked his ninth trip to NCAA regions.

He has made regular trips to the World Series as part of the NCAA rules and All-America committees, but this week is his arrival as a participant.

This is, arguably, already the greatest achievement of any team in USF's athletic history. And Eriksen is excited, even as an underdog opening against Oklahoma, playing in its seventh World Series a half-hour from campus with a lineup the USF coach compares to the '27 Yankees.

"It's been a whirlwind. But at the same time it's a great situation for the kids on our team to be experiencing the elation of representing the university in a national championship," Eriksen said. "There are 312 teams sitting home, and we're one of eight still going. The underdog role is there, but there are also seven teams that have to beat us."

Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] Follow his coverage at bulls.tampabay.com

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