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Bulls seek better start at home

The USF softball team has put up some impressive statistics in recent years, but the Bulls can’t be proud of these numbers: 0-5 and 0-8.

The Bulls began the 2001 season 0-5, dropped seven of their first 10 games, but recovered to win 41 regular season and conference tournament games and earn an at-large berth into the NCAA Regionals.

However, the team has an even longer streak to contend with. Since the 2000 season, the Bulls have gone 0-8 in their home-opening tournament, the USF-Louisville Slugger Tournament. Their next chance to rectify that is Friday afternoon at 3:30 when the Bulls open their season against Northwestern at the USF Softball Complex.

“We have started out kinda tough the last couple of years … I feel a lot different about this year’s team,” said Bulls coach Ken Eriksen. “This team is a very cerebral team. This team plays well between the lines right now. The last couple of years, I’d like to think that we were struggling to find our niche and self.”

The Bulls and Wildcats also met in the Bulls’ home opener last season, and Northwestern came away with a 2-1 win. The Wildcats return 15 players, including 12 from their NCAA team of 2000 and all their starters from last season.

One notable addition will be first-year coach Kate Drohan, who is taking over for longtime veteran coach Sharon Drysdale, the winningest coach in Wildcat history and a member of the Hall of Fame. Drysdale stepped down in May after 23 seasons at the helm.

“We see them getting better and better as they go on,” Eriksen said of the Wildcats. “They’ve got a very young, progressive coaching staff.”

USF’s second opponent, Tennessee, also will feature a new head coach – actually two. Karen and Ralph Weekly, formerly of UT-Chattanooga, will attempt to re-energize a squad that finished 24-35 overall and 9-20 in the Southeastern Conference with a team batting average of .280 and ERA of 2.81. Ralph Weekly was the hitting coach for the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, while new assistant coach Michele Granger was a gold medal-winning pitcher on the 1996 Olympic team.

“Tennessee (has) a new coaching staff completely, and they’ve got a great philosophy instilled right now,” Eriksen said. “Tennessee, being an SEC team, obviously is going to be very competitive.”

Senior center fielder Hannah Low is one of the Lady Vols’ top returning players. A two-time All-American at Merced (Calif.) Community College, Low belted seven home runs and drove in 21 runs last year.

The Bulls close the tournament Sunday at 1 p.m. against in-state rival Florida Atlantic. The Bulls and Owls were scheduled to meet in last year’s tourney, but rain forced the cancellation of that and many other games. The Bulls are 10-1 all-time against FAU.

“FAU (was) a top 20-25 team last year, an NCAA tournament team. (It’s) going to be a very tough battle,” Eriksen said. “We played them in the fall, played them well in the fall. (Second team All-American pitcher/DP) Nikki Myers will be back in action.”

Freshman Carmela Liwag and sophomore transfer Holly Groves are expected to debut for the Bulls at first base and right field, respectively, while Katie Dugger, who redshirted last season, is the projected starter in the pitching circle vs. Northwestern.Freshman pitcher Niki Trowell will start vs. Tennessee.

Left fielder Shelly Riker had a family emergency and likely will not play this weekend. Senior Alanna Hazzard is slated to take her place.

“This group right now that we have has been a work in progress since Sept. 1. In the past, it’s only been a work in progress since Feb. 1,” Eriksen said. “So right now, we’re about three months ahead of the game. I look for us to play better softball early in the year than we have in the past.”

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Bulls picked third in Conference USA

In the Conference USA preseason coaches’ poll, USF was picked to finish third in the 2002 regular season. The Bulls posted a 43-34 record last season and also finished third in the league regular-season standings. The Bulls ended their 2001 season in the NCAA Regionals, losing 12-5 to Michigan in the regional final.”It’s nice that our peers think that much of us,” Eriksen said. “There are a lot of quality teams in our conference, and it will come down to who plays the best in conference play.”

Junior shortstop Renee Oursler was USF’s only representative on the preseason All C-USA team. Oursler led the Bulls in batting average (.337) and runs (32) last year.

“To not select (third baseman Ginny) Georgantas and (catcher Courtney) Lewellen, though, seems to me like they are slighting the team and my players,” Eriksen said.

Defending regular-season champion DePaul is picked to repeat.