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Unfamiliarity breeds fun time for Thompson

Jennifer Thompson really doesn't know what she's getting into today. And that's just fine with her.

Thompson, you see, likes not knowing anything about the batters she faces. That's part of the fun for the South Florida junior right-hander _ figuring it out pitch by pitch, with the game on the line.

That's fun, you say? Here's proof enough: Thompson is 23-3 and boasts an earned-run average of 0.54. She's having all the fun in the world out there for the fifth-ranked Bulls.

"I like the pressure," Thompson said. "'I like the competition of the battle between me and the hitter. (And) I like surprises. Sometimes I think if I face a batter too much, they have the advantage."

Thompson, No. 2 on USF's all-time career victories list, gets a clean slate _ her favorite kind _ when the Bulls host 16th-ranked Florida State in a doubleheader today to close the regular season. It's a series that quickly is becoming a grudge match.

Thompson has done her part to boost the rivalry.

Last year she was the closer in a 4-3 victory that gave the Bulls the Southern Atlantic Alliance title and an automatic bid to the NCAA regionals for the second year in a row.

This time not as much hangs in the balance for USF (54-11). The Bulls have clinched the title and the regional bid. A sweep of Florida State (50-18) or even one victory could persuade the NCAA to let USF host the May 15-17 regional, but the Bulls (a solid No. 1 in their region) might have that locked up already.

Yet there's something about facing Florida State _ for years the state's dominant Division I team _ that fires up the Bulls no matter what the circumstances. Thompson is no exception.

"I can remember a time when I actually wanted to go to Florida State," said Thompson, who grew up in the softball hotbed of Naples. "I think we have surprised a few people in the past three years."

It's not a complete coincidence that the year USF started to rise in prominence was Thompson's freshman year. Together with junior pitcher Monica Triner, Thompson has been a big part of the foundation coach Ken Eriksen has laid the past two seasons.

Thompson and Triner have shattered the Bulls' career wins mark of 49. Each with a full season left, Triner is at 67 and Thompson 61. Thompson also is USF's all-time shutout leader with 29.

"She always wants the ball," Eriksen said. "It doesn't matter who we're going against. I appreciate that as a coach. JT and Mo were the people who came in (to the program) and set the tone right away. They've never backed down from anything."

Unlike Triner, who at .423 is on pace to break the school record for batting average, Thompson is strictly a pitcher. She is not nearly as intimidating at the plate; of her 10 at-bats, she has two hits.

But that's fine with Eriksen, who appreciates her versatility on the mound.

"The best part of it is, you can call her "a pitcher,' " Eriksen said. "She's got three or four different pitches. She hits her spots, works ahead in the count she's able to control those pitches, all four of them. When you can work ahead in the count and make the batter chase what you want them to chase, defensively that makes it easier for the team.

"There's not a lot of secrets in this game. When you've got a kid like her that throws the ball like she does, who wouldn't want her on the field?"

And even though Thompson and Triner likely will compete for school records and MVP honors until they end their careers together, there is no animosity between them. Instead, Eriksen said, they recognize that together they can make a doubleheader a nightmare for opponents.

Which brings us to today. While beating Florida State might not be imperative, to Thompson it would be a warmup to the team's ultimate goal: winning the regional and reaching USF's first College World Series.

"That's a goal we set from the first time we had a meeting," said Thompson, who admits she "got chills" the first time Eriksen brought it up.

"I don't think anyone's satisfied with where we are right now. We made the regional, but we haven't won anything yet."

College softball

WHO/WHAT: South Florida (54-11) vs. Florida State (50-18) doubleheader.

WHEN/WHERE: 3 p.m. today, USF softball field, in Sun Dome area.

RANKINGS: USF is No. 5; FSU is No. 16.

CONFERENCE PLAY: USF is 10-0 in the Southern Atlantic Alliance and has clinched the regular-season title and the NCAA regional bid that comes with it. FSU is 7-3.

AT STAKE: These are the final regular-season games for both teams. FSU is trying to assure itself of an at-large post-season bid. USF is trying to prove it deserves to host the East Regional.

NOTES: USF has won 23 consecutive regular-season conference games, dating to late 1996. In 1996 and 1997 the conference title came down to a late-season meeting between these teams; this year USF clinched the title more than two weeks early. The No. 5 ranking is the highest for any Bulls athletic team, and the 54 victories are a school record.

TICKETS: $4 for adults, $2 for children 3-17 and senior citizens over 55. USF students free with valid ID.

_ SHARON GINN

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