TAMPA — USF won its first Big East softball championship, outlasting top seed Notre Dame 1-0 in 10 innings Saturday for the Bulls' third consecutive shutout. The win sends USF to the NCAA regions.
Junior left-hander Sara Nevins dominated for the third day in a row, striking out 12 and outpitching Big East player of the year Laura Winter, who matched the Pinellas Park High graduate well into extra innings.
"What was it, (22⅔) innings of shutout ball? That's pretty impressive to me," Bulls coach Ken Eriksen said. "This is the last of the Big East tournaments that's going to have everybody. … We beat one of the best softball lineups in Big East history with Louisville, Notre Dame, DePaul. For us to come out on top in the last one, that says a lot."
USF (43-14) broke through for its run in the 10th against the Fighting Irish (43-13) . Freshman catcher Lee Ann Spivey led off with a grounder to third and the throw to first base sailed wide, putting her at second. Another freshman, Mo Santos of Wharton High, singled and USF had runners at second and third when outfielder Ashli Goff singled off Winter's leg for an RBI.
"I love teaching, and I like to see my students get rewarded," said Eriksen, whose team made the College World Series for the first time last season. "They're doing great in the classroom, like a 3.3 (GPA) as a team. To play flawless softball, they work hard. They work really, really hard, and they have fun."
The pitchers dominated through nine innings — Nevins took a perfect game into the sixth, and both pitchers allowed two singles each as the only baserunners after seven innings. Nevins (25-7) struck out 12 and Winter 11, and Nevins did this in the same week her father, Joe, suffered a heart attack and had bypass surgery.
Senior Lindsey Richardson came in for the final out, getting a strikeout to seal an amazing run of pitching. The inning's second out might have been the game's best, as Notre Dame's Cassidy Whidden hit what looked to be a single to right, only to see Goff, from Sickles High, field it and throw quickly to first for a rare 9-3 groundout.
This is only the second time a Big East champ didn't allow a run in the tournament, the first since Connecticut in 1990, the conference's first season of softball.
The Bulls have an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament and will learn their fate tonight in the draw (10 p.m., ESPNU). They're unlikely to host a region, but Eriksen said he hopes their strong play this weekend gives them a chance.