TAMPA — They have mourned together, have endured the biggest scare a team can go through, and through it all, USF's softball team has used a relentless focus to keep winning on the field, despite losses away from it.
"Are we the most talented USF team ever? No. Are we the most successful team ever? No, but it's the most focused team I've ever had," said coach Ken Eriksen, whose team takes a 40-15 record into today's final home games against Louisville.
That focus has helped the Bulls get through far more trying obstacles than a 9-8 start. In March, Eriksen's mother, Annette, adored as part of the USF softball family, died after a two-year battle with cancer.
Two weeks after the funeral, the Bulls barely avoided tragedy, as junior pitcher Cristi Ecks collapsed April 1 at a routine afternoon practice and went nearly three minutes without a heartbeat before she could be shocked back to life by trainers on the scene.
"You realize that there are a lot bigger things in life than worrying about L's and W's," said Eriksen, who like his players wears a black wristband that bears his mother's initials. "If we can maintain that perspective, we're going to be okay."
Ecks, who has been among the nation's ERA leaders in all three years at USF, will not play again this season, but her presence at games has been uplifting for teammates who once feared they'd lost her. Doctors have not yet discovered what caused her heart to stop but implanted a portable defibrillator that could shock her heart if it stops again.
Ecks has not spoken publicly since her collapse, but her father, Doug, said Friday that it was vital for her to return to her team, even if she couldn't take the field.
"It was important for her to be a part of the team, and she's very excited about the way they're playing," he said.
Because of the defibrillator, Ecks cannot raise her left arm above her shoulders, and she's due to be evaluated in mid May. She already has talked to other college athletes who have played with such devices, and while doctors still don't know enough to think about a return to softball, her father said, "Nobody is shutting any doors."
The Bulls have gone 11-3 since Ecks was sidelined and sit atop the Big East standings with a 14-2 league record with two weeks to play. After missing the NCAA regionals last spring, USF looks to be in position to return to the tournament, which they played in each year from 2003-06. Despite having only four seniors, the Bulls have developed a close bond this season.
"I don't think there's anything that could have made us stronger," said senior Courtney Mosch, who has a team-high 16 wins as a pitcher and ranks third with 24 RBIs. "We've tried not letting that affect us. We're a family. You play strong and play together."
Freshman Capri Catalano has stepped up on the mound, showing uncanny poise in compiling a 14-0 record and the Big East's lowest ERA at 0.88. Eriksen said the team's focus has grown stronger since Ecks' collapse, reminding players to live in this at-bat, this pitch, to enjoy the game they're fortunate enough to play.
"How lucky are we to be able to see her smile every day?" Eriksen asked. "So now, what's the worst thing that could happen to us? Everything's bonus time now. So you just play in the moment, and that's been a great impetus for this team."