TAMPA — USF softball coach Ken Eriksen was a confident guy before his team made it to the College World Series in Oklahoma City last summer, so with that dominant pitching staff back this spring, he has very high expectations for 2013.
How high? The Bulls were picked by league coaches as the Big East's preseason champs and are ranked as high as No. 10 in national preseason polls, yet USF still enters the season motivated to show it's better than expected.
"I think we still have a chip on our shoulder. We hear that aspect of people saying, 'They overachieved last year.' 'You got lucky' is what they're saying. That comes from ignorance and fear, actually, and not enough respect," Eriksen said before practice Tuesday. "One of our administrators came running down the hall and said, 'You're ranked 12th!' I was like … I can understand that situation. We lost five seniors. When they stop talking about you, that's when you've got trouble."
USF went 50-14 last season, with the nation's No. 2 staff ERA, 1.23. Lefty Sara Nevins of Pinellas Park (31-8, 1.12 ERA) is back as a junior, as are senior Lindsey Richardson (9-2, 1.32) and sophomore Samantha Greiner (10-4, 1.58). Freshman phenom Erica Nunn joins the staff and is likely to contribute a potent bat as well.
The Bulls lost key bats and leaders from last year, but Eriksen points to "stalwarts" in SS Kourtney Salvarola and 1B Stephanie Medina (Chamberlain), both juniors. He'll turn to young players in central roles; freshman Lee Ann Spivey takes over at catcher for Laura Fountain, and sophomore De'Anna Devine takes over in centerfield for Gina Kafalas, whose leadoff duties fall to Salvarola. Senior Kenshyra Jackson, the designated player most of last season, takes over for Jessica Mouse at third, and twins Ashli and Courtney Goff (from Sickles) could both bring speed to the daily lineup.
"We're not going at a lack for hitting this year," Eriksen said. "Our offensive production has probably gone up already, from what we've seen. Right now, we're looking pretty good."
PIVOTAL STRETCH: At 14-5, USF women's basketball is going for the second NCAA Tournament berth in the program's history, and the next 10 games will largely decide that.
The Bulls enter tonight's home game against No. 12 Louisville with a huge opportunity, needing top-50 wins to bolster their NCAA resume. Their RPI rating is No. 55, eighth among Big East schools, and they get two shots at Louisville and games against other bubble teams such as Georgetown (RPI 39), St. John's (61) and Rutgers (66) in the next five weeks.
The Bulls have had to settle for the Women's NIT seven times in the past nine seasons, and with eight seniors, coach Jose Fernandez expected something more from this team. Games like tonight can help the Bulls get there.
THIS AND THAT: Football coach Willie Taggart's strong recruiting push has the Bulls ranked as the No. 40 class nationally by Rivals.com, best among the Big East's 2013 lineup. The Bulls are still in play for four-star WR Stacy Coley and three-star prospects such as RB JoJo Kemp, TE Travis Johnson (Jesuit) and WR Marquez Valdes (Lakewood). … Stan Heath's men's basketball team is missing its stifling defense in Big East play. Three straight opponents have shot better than 52 percent from the field in dropping the Bulls to 1-7 in conference.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.