After a week off to rest, USF softball finishes the regular season this weekend with three games at first-place DePaul, and there's much in play for the Bulls, who could enter the conference tournament anywhere from first place to fifth.
USF (32-18, 12-3) is hoping to bounce back from a doubleheader sweep at the hands of Notre Dame last week, which saw the Bulls muster only one hit in the two losses. A regular-season title is still possible, if extremely unlikely -- the Bulls would have to sweep DePaul (17-1) on its home field and have Notre Dame (16-1) lose at Connecticut (6-12).
What's more interesting to watch is how the Bulls can set themselves up for next week's conference tournament at Louisville, which starts Thursday. It's a single-elimination eight-team draw, so any team hot enough to win three games in three days wins a trip to the NCAAs. If USF loses so much as one game to DePaul, the Bulls can't be seeded higher than third, so reasonably, they'll be facing one of three teams to open the tournament: host Louisville (12-4), Syracuse (12-5) or Pittsburgh (10-8).
USF swept Syracuse at home but didn't face either Louisville or Pittsburgh -- would you rather face a team that you beat three times, or one that hasn't faced your pitchers all season? And regardless of the first-round matchup, the Bulls would likely face DePaul or Notre Dame in the semifinals, with the other likely looming in the championship game.
If USF can take just one of three games from DePaul, that would put them at 13-5 in conference, Louisville and Syracuse play each other this weekend, and if Syracuse at home could take two of three from Louisville, the Bulls would hold onto the third seed for the conference tournament -- at 13-5, they would edge the Cardinals (13-6) and Orange (14-6). That's probably the best reasonable scenario for USF.
USF faced DePaul in Clearwater in February and held its own, losing 4-2 but getting six hits to DePaul's seven, and that was with sophomore Lindsey Richardson starting instead of freshman phenom Sara Nevins. The Bulls' pitching is the key to the rest of their season -- in conference play, USF has had a 0.79 ERA, allowing just 19 total runs in 15 Big East games -- that's less than half the runs allowed by the next closest pitching staff. We'll have more as the weekend unfolds ...