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USF softball forges onward minus longtime coach Ken Eriksen

The Bulls are playing under an interim coach this season as Eriksen leads the U.S. Olympic team.
USF interim coach Jess Moore watches her team from the dugout on the opening day of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational at Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

TAMPA ― For one mild evening, their coach finally was all there, in spirit and body.

USF’s softball players could see Ken Eriksen fidgeting in the third-base coaching box, could hear his clipped exhortations in that distinct Long Island accent, could feel his embrace.

Then, after a round of selfies, Eriksen was gone, drifting away in a vapor of warmth, wit and wisdom.

“I’m not on the countable coach list (for USF) anymore,” he said.

Welcome to the most surreal season in Bulls softball history. That Feb. 4 cameo by Eriksen unfolded on the visitors side of USF Softball Stadium, from where he coached the 2020 U.S. Olympic team during its 3-0 exhibition triumph against a dugout full of kids he recruited and has helped nurture.

“It’s been fun, but it actually has been kinda weird with him not really being involved at all,” said 28-year-old USF assistant Jess Moore, the Bulls’ interim coach in Eriksen’s absence. “Him and I talk together, he’s like, ‘It’s weird not working with you every day.’ I’m like, ‘I know.’”

Related: As 2020 season dawns, USF baseball bent on atoning for '19

In about five months, Eriksen and Team USA head for Tokyo in pursuit of a gold medal. Upon being named coach of the Olympic squad last May, Eriksen remained hopeful he could juggle his gig at USF ― where he has won 975 games in 23 seasons ― with his national team obligations.

But Team USA officials insisted such double duty would be impractical. He soon realized they were correct.

“It was always in the back of my mind to try to do both, but there’s no way,” Eriksen said. “No way possible.”

Team USA coach Ken Eriksen seen here before Wednesday's exhibition game against Liberty at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational in Clearwater. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

So last fall, with the blessing of Bulls athletic director Michael Kelly, Eriksen took a leave of absence from USF. Though he still periodically shows up at his office on the Selmon Center’s second floor, he cannot recruit or coach for the Bulls.

“It’s got to be in passing like, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’” Eriksen said. “’Come into the office and talk about life,’ those type of situations. But no recruiting, no coaching, no teaching, zero.”

The Bulls and their resident icon could meet in passing again this weekend. USF began play Thursday afternoon in the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, where Team USA also is playing a couple of exhibitions. Both teams have games slated Sunday morning.

Related: Hottest ticket in college softball? It's the St. Pete/Clearwater Invitational

“He can’t coach us obviously, because that’s like, against some rule,” Bulls redshirt junior Bethaney Keen said.

“You can always go up to his office and talk to him, but it can’t be really like, ‘Hey coach, I’m doing this wrong. What can I do to (improve) that?’ because he’s not really our coach right now. But you also have to respect the fact that he has a lot of things on his mind, too.”

So does Moore. Among them: How to break the Bulls, 0-5 after Thursday’s 5-1 loss to Oklahoma State in Clearwater, out of their season-opening swoon.

USF hasn’t lost its first five contests since 2001, but in fairness, Eriksen’s teams haven’t exactly burst from the gate in recent years either. Notorious for loading his non-conference schedule with stiff tournament competition, Eriksen’s 2019 squad started 1-5. His ’16 team began 1-4.

Translation: Don’t prematurely judge Moore, herself a former national team member and All-America pitcher at Oregon. Two of USF’s defeats have been to No. 8 Florida and No. 11 Michigan.

“I think she’s a natural leader coming from Oregon,” two-time American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year Georgina Corrick said. “I knew that she was incredible there and she did a lot for her team there. And coming here, she really works well with the girls, and she has a great dynamic with not only the pitchers, but everyone else on the field.

“I think it was a really easy transition ‘cause all of us already kinda saw her as our boss. Now she just gets the cool title.”

Even as her boss pursues a world title.

“I feel comfortable, so that’s nice,” Moore said on the eve of the exhibition against the Olympic team. “The systems really haven’t changed, I’ve been here long enough to kinda know the gist of everything, so it’s been a smooth transition, I think.”

St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational

Where: Eddie C. Moore Complex, 2780 Drew St., Clearwater

Tickets: Tournament passes are sold out. Single-game tickets for Fields 1 and 3 can be purchased at the gate on the day of the game for $25 ($20 for youth). Tickets for the Wednesday game between Team USA and Liberty University will be available for $5 one hour before the 6 p.m. start. Find more info here.

Thursday: Liberty vs. Alabama, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State, 10 a.m. (ACC), South Carolina vs. Texas Tech, 12:30 p.m. (SEC), Missouri vs. Kansas, 1 p.m. (ESPNU), Oklahoma State vs. USF, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Alabama vs. Washington, 4 p.m. (ESPN2).

Friday: South Carolina vs. Virginia Tech, 10 a.m. (ESPNU), Alabama vs. USF, 10:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Minnesota vs. Oklahoma State, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Georgia vs. Kansas, noon (SEC), Washington vs. FSU, 1 p.m. (ESPNU), Liberty vs. Missouri, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Northwestern vs. Georgia, 3 p.m. (ESPN3), Texas Tech vs. James Madison, 3 p.m. (ESPN3), UCLA vs. Alabama, 4 p.m. (ESPNU), Oklahoma State vs. Missouri, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Minnesota vs. FSU, 6 p.m. (ESPN3), South Carolina vs. Kansas, 6 p.m. (ESPN3), Washington vs. Liberty, 7 p.m. (ESPN3).

Saturday: Texas Tech vs. Georgia, 10 a.m. (ESPN3), Alabama vs. Oklahoma State, 10:30 a.m. (SEC), Kansas vs. Northwestern, 10:30 a.m. (ESPN3), UCLA vs. Liberty, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Missouri vs. Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. (ESPN3), Kansas vs. James Madison, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN3), FSU vs. Northwestern, 2 p.m. (ESPN3), UCLA vs. Georgia, 4 p.m. (ESPNU), Virginia Tech vs. Minnesota, 5 p.m. (ESPN3), USF vs. Texas Tech, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN3), James Madison vs. Missouri, 6 p.m. (ESPN3), Washington vs. South Carolina, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)

Sunday: Georgia vs. USF, 9 a.m. (ESPN3), Missouri vs. Minnesota, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Texas Tech vs. Washington, 10 a.m. (ESPNU), Team USA vs. Oklahoma State, 10 a.m. (ESPN3), FSU vs. Liberty, noon (ESPN3), Northwestern vs. Virginia Tech, noon (ESPN3), James Madison vs. South Carolina, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Team USA vs. Washington, 12:30 p.m (ESPN3), USF vs. UCLA, 3 p.m. (ESPN3), FSU vs. UCLA, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

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