USF softball coach Ken Eriksen believes pitching and defense is the formula for winning championships, and that’s what stood out for the Bulls this weekend in capturing the GRU Classic in Gainesville.
The Bulls (8-1) pushed their winning streak to seven games with a perfect 5-0 mark, with victories coming against Southeastern Conference opponents Florida and Arkansas, as well as Missouri of the Big 12.
Though the Bulls are through just in their second of seven tournaments this season, Eriksen saw enough in Gainesville to realize his team is on the right track.
“(The tournament) gives us a good indication of where we’re trying to go,” Eriksen said. “We understand that we have to play good defense and get some good pitching, and that will enhance our chance to get some timely hitting.”
And timely hitting is exactly what the Bulls got throughout the tournament, especially in the final game against Appalachian State.
The Bulls found themselves trailing for the first time in the tournament after the Mountaineers scored three unearned runs off freshman Kasey Cash in the second inning. But the deficit wouldn’t stand long, as the Bulls rallied to tie the game in the top of the third on a two-run double by senior Holly Groves and freshman Danielle Urbanik’s RBI single.
USF then took the lead for good in the next inning on Kattrina Dowd’s RBI double, while Cash, who picked up her first collegiate win, and senior Leigh Ann Ellis held the Mountaineers scoreless the rest of the game.
It was the two freshman pitchers, Cash and Urbanik, who seemed to make the biggest improvements this weekend after struggling in their collegiate debuts at the USF Louisville Slugger Tournament.
Urbanik notched a pair of wins in Gainesville, the first two of her collegiate career. She tossed a two-hit shutout against Tennessee-Chattanooga and allowed just three hits and one earned run in a victory against Arkansas. In addition to earning her first win, Cash came on in relief for Urbanik against Arkansas and struck out the side in her only inning of work.
“I think you can assess it as, thank goodness there’s only one first game,” Eriksen said about the way the freshmen rebounded after rocky starts in the season’s opening weekend. “Once you get that first game out of the way, you feel like you can play a little bit.”
Eriksen said the freshmen’s struggles were not only because of first-game jitters, but also because the Bulls were up against some quality competition.
“It was sort of a baptism by fire,” Eriksen said. “But we wanted them to be right there in that type of speed right away.”
Though the two freshmen seemed to step up, it was Ellis and Groves, a pair of seniors, who continued their hot streak in the early season.
Ellis, who also picked up a pair of victories in Gainesville, one of which was a two-hit shutout against Missouri, also notched a pair of saves in relief. Ellis closed out the Bulls’ wins against Arkansas and Appalachian State, and though Eriksen said she will fill any role needed for right now, it’s simply a testament to the pitching staff stepping in for one another when needed.
“If you take a look at it, our staff is a staff. If they’re cruising, they’re cruising, but they’re a staff and they will pick each other up. I don’t look at it as who is going to give me seven innings; it’s who can help out who at any time.”
Groves upped her average to a team-leading .464 this weekend. She had both hits for the Bulls against the Tigers, one of which was a three-run double that provided all of the game’s scoring.
Groves’ 17 RBIs is 10 more than any of her teammates, but Eriksen was quick to point out that her teammates deserve most of the credit.
“I think more than anything, (it’s been) Dowd and (Shelly) Riker, and the two that hit behind her in the lineup,” Eriksen said. “Whether they get hits or not, they put her in a position to where they have to throw to her because you don’t want to walk anyone in. When you have speed on the base paths (in front of you), you will see a lot of hittable pitches. And Holly is really just doing a good job of driving in some runs.”
The Bulls return to action Friday when they host the USF Wilson Tournament at the USF softball complex.