Bulls’ seesaw season ends in Regionals

Before the USF softball season started, third baseman Ginny Georgantas predicted the Bulls would reach the Women’s College World Series.

As it turned out, USF fell one step short of that goal, losing 12-5 to Michigan in the championship round of the NCAA Region IV Tournament May 20.

En route to the championship round, USF beat No. 14 Oregon State, lost a 4-hour, 13-inning battle to Michigan and upset top-seeded host No. 7 Alabama. USF coach Ken Eriksen said the Bulls’ performance in the tournament stemmed from his players’ calm approach.

“Once they got to the Regionals, it seemed like the pressure was off of them, like they were on bonus time — let’s just go out and play ball like we know how to play ball, let every individual worry about their own act.” Eriksen said. “And that’s what we preached all year. And they finally bought into it, it looked like.”

The at-large bid to the Regionals came as a relief to a team that had been under pressure from the first day of the season. The Bulls (43-34, 12-9 in Conference USA) began with a doubleheader against Florida International in Miami, and lost 1-0 and 5-4 in the final at-bat of each game.

Six suspensions marred the Bulls’ home opener against Northwestern, a 2-1 loss. Then USF followed with another 2-1 loss, to Hawaii, and lost 5-0 to eventual national champion Arizona.

A trip to Gainesville gave the Bulls their first three victories of the year, one against Stetson and two against Southeastern Louisiana, but the Bulls also dropped two one-run games to host Florida. At that point, USF’s record stood at 3-7 with six one-run losses, and the hardest part of the schedule was yet to come.

However, the Bulls rallied to win 23 of their next 33 non-conference games, including seven- and eight-game winning streaks and victories versus then-No. 4 Washington, then-No. 25 FIU and Oregon State. USF lost a doubleheader to eventual runner-up UCLA and a game to then-No. 5 Stanford, but Eriksen said the schedule prepared the team well for the Regionals and was also a key factor in USF receiving one of the final at-large bids to the NCAAs.

“We had an up-and-down kind of season as far as getting a winning streak together,” Eriksen said. “But you take a look at our schedule and it’s obvious that the schedule was awesome.

“As we talked about before, the schedule really prepared us well for what we were to expect at the NCAA Regionals.”

The Bulls received the third seed in the C-USA Tournament by winning four of the three-game series played against the other seven C-USA opponents. Eriksen chose the Bulls’ Game 1 win vs. Southern Miss at home as the turning point of the season.

“That first game (a 3-2 win) was really the highlight of the season, to propel us into believing we could beat these teams again, because we doubted ourselves there for a little bit,” Eriksen said.

Louisville, who was one of USF’s regular-season victims, ousted the Bulls from the C-USA Tourney, forcing them to await the at-large bid to the NCAAs.

“There were a lot of games this year that bounces didn’t go our way,” Eriksen said. “Other than that, we very easily could have finished first or seventh. The conference is a tough conference and you’ve got to come to play every day.”

Along with USF, C-USA Tourney champion Southern Miss and regular-season champion DePaul were also selected.

USF’s lone All-C-USA Tournament selection, freshman Cindy Turek, enjoyed a banner year for the Bulls. Playing second base and taking to the pitching circle occasionally, Turek tied the school single-season record with seven home runs and also led the Bulls with 14 doubles and 86 total bases.

Another freshman, left fielder Shelly Riker, broke the school single-season record for freshmen by stealing 29 bases. Riker missed the overall single-season record by a single steal.

Turek, Riker, and infielder Rena Rodriguez (.361 slugging percentage) were named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team. Turek was also named to the All-Conference Team, along with seniors Priscilla Smith (catcher) and Jessi Kowal (pitcher). Georgantas and shortstop Renee Oursler were First Team honorees.

Eriksen singled out Smith as the most valuable player of the 77-game season.

“There’s no question I would say Priscilla Smith, and for this asset: Beside the leadership role which she showed by example, beside the fight and determination that she showed on the field, the things that she did off the field are invaluable,” Eriksen said.

“In the classroom, the weight room, keeping our team focused — (she’s) one of those type of players that you hope that you have every single year.”

Eriksen added that the team benefited from the work ethic and no-nonsense demeanor of sophomore catcher Courtney Lewellen, who he feels should have been selected to one of the All-Conference teams.

“Every day of her life, she does something to make herself a better softball player,” he said.

The pitching staff was led by Kowal, who made the All-Regional Team at Alabama and matched her win total of last year with 24 wins. The right-hander leaves USF with 48 career wins, tied for fourth-best in school history.

“Jessi was consistent all year long, as she was last year,” Eriksen said. “She was the one we needed to go to in crucial situations. And, by and large, she carried a lot of the load … for us.

“It was nice to see that her demeanor on the mound was able to rub off on Cindy Turek.”

Kowal did not always receive adequate run support, as USF posted a team batting average of .247. However, Eriksen pointed out that the Bulls often faced some of the best pitchers in the country.

“But the positive part about it was we played a heck of a schedule and saw some great pitching. And good pitching is going to stop good hitting no matter what,” he said.

Eriksen said the team will be hard pressed to replace the experience of Kowal, Smith, and the other seniors — pitcher Jaimie Anderson and right fielder Nikki Phillips (an All-Regional selection). But he said the Bulls’ core of young players is up to the task.

“Seventy percent of our starters were freshmen and sophomores. You’re going to have bad breaks. You’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the great attitude that returns next year with our freshmen and sophomores of this year. They’re outstanding. They’re setting themselves up very well for the future right now.”

In Eriksen’s opinion, the Bulls and their fans have a lot to be proud of.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of here,” he said.

“We may not have a facility like Alabama, Florida, Florida State, (but) I don’t see a lot of teams, beside the 16 that made it to that final Sunday (of NCAA Regionals), do the things that we did this year.

“We played on pride, we played on tradition, we played on brains, and South Florida softball has a lot to be proud of.”

Khari Williams covers softball and
can be reached at oraclekhari@yahoo.com

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