The USF softball season kicks today at 6 p.m. when the No. 23 Bulls welcome the No. 3 Florida Gators to the USF Softball Stadium. One would be hard-pressed to find a more difficult group to compete against for college softball’s opening weekend than the team USF is taking on.
In addition to the Gators, USF will take on Bethune-Cookman immediately following the season opener Thursday. These two games are followed by Wisconsin on Friday – a team that sits just outside the top 25 – and finally No. 4 Michigan and Illinois State on Saturday.
But the Bulls wouldn’t have it any other way, USF coach Ken Eriksen said.
“I don’t think there’s anything better than facing the best competition in these first two weeks to get you ready for the postseason,” Eriksen said. “But I’ve got to talk to the guy that makes the schedule. Right now he’s getting a little happy and might need to calm it down a bit. But if we see the best pitching early on then there will be nothing we haven’t seen later on in the year.”
Along with Eriksen, head coach of Team USA softball, senior shortstop Kourtney Salvarola is no stranger to tough competition, as she spent last summer competing against the best softball teams in the world, and said she welcomes the season opening challenge.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for our program to go up against some top 5 teams, (and) some great teams,” she said. “It’s going to show us how good we are and what we need to work on.”
In addition to accepting more of a leadership role, Salvarola said this is the first USF team she’s been on where it’s possible to find leadership from a freshman or sophomore. This year there is a collection of teammates with strong wills who voice their opinion, and when someone does, it’s respected.
But when Salvarola was traveling and playing with Team USA, she took a mental note of things she hopes to add to her senior campaign.
“I always did extra softball-related work but I never ran or lifted extra (like the Team USA girls do),” she said. “Watching them play and seeing how they can compete against Japan in extra innings because they’re so physically fit is something I’ve tried to bring to the team. Also the fun they had, like we have with the shag-dance group.”
Last season USF struggled through the first third of the schedule as they tried to meet expectations following its 2012 Women’s College World Series campaign, dropping to 7-10 at one point.
All along, Eriksen just asked his team to play loose and have fun again, something he believes to be critical to success – starting with shagging fly balls in practice.
“I always stress that we have fun,” Eriksen said. “If you come to our batting practice, there’s a board that says live hitting, defense, batting cage, then there’s a shag group, and then there’s a shag-dance group, and it’s mandatory that you dance. That’s your break away from things to have some fun on the ball field.”
But with last season’s early struggles, before eventually winning the Big East Championship, senior first baseman Stephanie Medina said a lesson was learned.
“There’s a chance we’ll have rough games and it’s okay because we went through a stretch where we didn’t necessarily play that well,” she said. “But we never gave up.”
Medina, who said she’s battled issues in both hips for the last three years, will anchor the starting first base position once again, Eriksen said.
Medina underwent surgery on her right hip immediately following last season and will have surgery on her left hip in June, but has grown accustomed to dealing with the pain.
“I mean, when am I not in pain?” she said. “I just have to keep up with the treatment and rehab that I’m supposed to be doing. It’s my last season. It’s something that I’ve gotten used to over the last three years. I’ve kind of accepted my responsibility to be in the training room for the other 22 girls on the team.”
While Eriksen said Medina and Salvarola will hold down starting roles, he added he only knows of a few other foreseeable spots to be locked down.
Those three spots include senior Ashli Goff in right field, sophomore Lee Ann Spivey at catcher and in all likelihood, the pitching rotation will be dictated by senior Sara Nevins’ performance.
Nevins, who Eriksen said will start against Florida, is also a Team USA member and was named on the NCAA Player of the Year Watch List this week. But don’t be surprised if another pitcher on the Bulls’ roster challenges her for most innings pitched, he said, adding that junior Sam Greiner has found her stride and sophomore Erica Nunn, junior transfer Karla Claudio and freshman Susan Wysocki all have accolades to warrant their potential.
Medina said they will miss former Bull Lindsey Richardson, but said she has never been more excited about the depth of a pitching staff.