TAMPA — He's 55, has managed nearly 1,300 games at USF, and probably has forgotten more softball than some of his peers may ever grasp.
So forgive Bulls coach Ken Eriksen if he can't quite remember the last time one of his teams bucked the odds as valiantly as his current one.
A season that began with a bleak prognosis (fourth in American Athletic Conference preseason poll) and later was jarred by a player's frightening diagnosis (cancer), captured its first conference regular season title in eight years Saturday.
The clincher came roughly 24 hours after an embarrassing 9-0 home loss Friday to UCF. Entering their trademark state of collective amnesia, the Bulls (43-13, 15-3) responded with a 4-1 triumph against the Knights before a senior day crowd of 1,425.
"We had all people give some effort through the year; we have no superstars," Eriksen told reporters after Saturday's victory.
The collaborative effort has been nothing short of astounding. USF leads the conference in 13 offensive categories, but a different Bull is ranked first in average (junior Juli Weber), slugging (senior Lee Ann Spivey) and on-base percentage (junior Kristen Wyckoff).
Meantime, the pitching, in disarray during a 2-7 start against nationally elite competition, now owns a respectable 2.52 ERA (third in the league). Senior lefty Erica Nunn (26-9, 1.60 ERA) has blossomed into a bona fide ace.
"Everybody talks about Spivey or Nunn or this and that, but you take a look at what happened through the last 55 games, and we had contributions in at least 38 different opportunities, so it's a good team effort," said Eriksen, whose club has an outside shot at hosting an NCAA region.
"And that's what we have to do. We're not a powerful, stellar team that's just gonna blow you out of the water. We're gonna grind."
Or more specifically, dig.
After burrowing out of their early-season hole, the Bulls had to dig into their mental and emotional reservoirs when sophomore Meredith Bissette was diagnosed with a rare type of pelvic cancer. Since learning of Bissette's battle (she's currently undergoing treatment), they've won 14 of 18.
"She has been our rock," Nunn said.
And so continues a season of reassessment, regrouping and resilience.
A season beyond anything Eriksen can remember.
BETTER WITH AGE?: Stow this in your stranger-things-have-happened file: The injury-besieged Bulls baseball team (21-23, 6-9), which must win the AAC tournament that starts May 24 in Clearwater to earn a second consecutive NCAA berth, may possess just enough arms and offense to pull it off.
By then, it might have enough savvy as well.
Out of necessity (i.e. injury, graduation), six freshman position players have started at least 10 of the Bulls' 15 conference games. Additionally, four pitchers currently remain on the shelf. Yet USF has won three of its last five conference games, and clinched its first AAC series last weekend by taking two of three from UCF.
"They'll still be freshmen on paper, but you hope the fact they have played 60 games means that they are ready to compete in a conference tournament," said second-year coach Mark Kingston, whose piecemeal pitching staff leads the conference in strikeouts (414).
"I think the talent spread across our league is very even this year. … What we hope is that by the time we get to that tournament, our young guys have played enough so that we can compete in baseball situations to have a chance to win every game in that tournament. That's our mind-set at this point and I think it's very plausible."
REPEAT: After a sluggish outset in Sunday's opening round, the Bulls men's golf team roared back for a dominant 19-under triumph at the AAC tournament at Lecanto's Black Diamond Ranch. The Bulls, who have won two consecutive league crowns and three in the last four years, shot 10 under as a team in Tuesday's final round.
Memphis (1 over) finished second. Bulls senior Aksel Olsen shot 3-under 69 on Tuesday and finished 7 under for the tournament to win medalist honors by a stroke. Teammates Chase Koepka (5 under) and Claudio Correa (4 under) finished third and fourth, respectively.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.