TAMPA — USF softball coach Ken Eriksen is an old-school baseball guy at heart, so in describing sophomore lefty ace Sara Nevins, he points to 1970s standouts Tom Seaver and Ron Guidry, then on a more personal level, Bill "Spaceman" Lee.
There is the utter dominance and confidence, the cool presence in any pitching situation, and in Lee's case, a wonderful goofiness off the field.
"Sara's a happy-go-lucky lefty," Eriksen said. "There are things she does like every 20-year-old kid. Remember, this is a game that kids play. Spaceman comes to mind. She's not way out there, but she has a great sense of humor, gets along with everybody. She's one to laugh along with everyone."
In compiling a 22-2 record and a Division I-leading 0.60 ERA while helping USF to a 36-5 mark, the 6-foot Nevins has nonchalantly rendered batters irrelevant, which is fitting given that her pitching mind-set doesn't really include them in her thoughts.
"I guess I don't really think about anything. Emotionless, I guess? Carefree? Whatever the words are," the Pinellas Park graduate said Monday before a practice. "I don't really pay attention to the batters. I don't look the batters in the face or do anything like that."
Ask Nevins her favorite outing this season — there's the six-inning no-hitter against Central Connecticut State, the 14-strikeout perfect game against Toledo the next day, wins against Florida and Florida State, a 16-strikeout no-hitter against Pittsburgh — and she can think of one, but it's really just a collection of pitches against an anonymous opponent.
"I forgot the name of the team. I don't remember. It was here," she says from the home dugout of the Bulls' new softball stadium, where she is expected to pitch today when USF plays a doubleheader against Providence. "There wasn't that many hits. I'm not sure, actually. … There was also a game that I was really proud we won. It was like a big team."
That's not a show of disrespect from Nevins so much as an indication of what's important to her: her teammates and their success, regardless of who they're playing. She was the Tampa Bay Times' Pinellas County pitcher of the year in 2010 after amassing 1,160 career strikeouts, having committed to USF as a high school sophomore, two years after she saw her first Bulls game with her father, Joseph, who doesn't miss a game.
"I just fell in love with the school, I guess," said Nevins, who has been Big East pitcher of the week five weeks in a row. "Especially that we have the stadium now, everything has worked out. It's amazing here."
She holds opponents to a .163 batting average, and when she is a jam, you won't notice a drop of sweat on her brow or even the tiniest change in her demeanor as she gets a signal from catcher Laura Fountain.
"She's unflappable," Eriksen said. "Tough situations, runners in scoring position, winning runs and tying runs on, and it's an everyday stroll at the park for her. It's uncanny."
Fountain will go the pitching circle before an inning, remind Nevins that the top of the order is due up — "be smart, be smart," she'll say — then remember that the sophomore knows, and isn't fazed by that.
"She's very carefree, but she's very together when she's in there," Fountain said. "It's incredible. That's what makes her great. You can be in the most pressure situation you could be faced with, and for her, it's just another pitch. When you're able to do that and not worry about the pressure situations, you can thrive."
With a top-20 national ranking and a 9-0 start in Big East play, the Bulls are poised to play in an NCAA regional and host postseason games, with a shot at the College World Series in Oklahoma City. It's something else that Nevins is aware of but not making a big deal out of just yet.
"We want to go really far, but Coach always says to work it one game at a time, even each practice at a time, to not think ahead. As long as we keep doing that, I'm pretty sure everything will work out in our favor."