As a new season of USF softball begins, certain things about the Bulls never seem to change. Bulls coach Ken Eriksen is still stalking the foul lines in his 18th year with the program, sixth as head coach. The Bulls are coming off their fourth NCAA Regionals appearance since 1996, and a face from the past has returned to join the coaching ranks.
But in other ways, the Bulls will be a completely different aggregation from the one that lost to Michigan in the NCAA Regionals final last May. The loss of four graduates and two other starters leaves the Bulls drastically short on experienced pitching, but some key additions might give USF a powerful lineup not seen since the glory days of former All-American Monica Triner.
The Bulls’ loss to the Wolverines in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was the second time Eriksen fell one game short of the Women’s College World Series, the first coming in 1997. But the mere fact that USF reached the Regionals was no small feat for a team that struggled to play consistently throughout the season.
By the time the Regionals rolled around, Eriksen said his team had finally bought into his teachings.
“It’s so funny that when we got down to the NCAAs last year, we did less coaching than we did throughout the whole year,” he said. “The team was well-prepared. They didn’t need to be bothered with the stupidity of the event itself.”
On arrival in Tuscaloosa, Eriksen proclaimed that the Bulls would be playing Alabama in the final, a prediction that got him pilloried in the local media. When the Bulls eliminated the host Crimson Tide and went on to the final, the members were forced to apologize.
“You can get caught up playing in Tuscaloosa against the University of Alabama and playing against a Pac-10 team, but we were well-prepared because we had played those teams before,” Eriksen said. “Plus, the coaching staff had been in those situations and told the team what to expect. We basically played upon the nervousness of the other teams and did well, did really well.”
That experience gives the 2002 USF team something to shoot for again, and the mindset of the Bulls will be to reach just as far in every tournament, Eriksen said.
“I think that the taste of being there is in their mouth and they know what it felt like to get there,” he said. “We were young and immature as a team, and some of the young ladies on our team last year were kinda satisfied once we beat Alabama … those were the players that didn’t step up and do the job that they were supposed to do. They’re not here anymore.
“We’ve gone on, and now we have players that really are serious about getting to Sunday every tournament, getting into position to win every tournament.”
If the Bulls are to build on last year’s 43-34 record, their young pitchers must grow up in a hurry. Jessi Kowal, with 24 wins each of the last two years, has moved on, and Jaimie Anderson has also graduated. Jamie Peterka and Cindy Turek left the team suddenly, making sophomore lefty Gail Callinan (13.1 innings in 2001) the only pitcher on the 2002 squad with collegiate experience.
Redshirt freshman Katie Dugger is slated to hold down the No. 1 slot, and true freshman Niki Trowell will be the second starter. Though experience can be a boon, Eriksen has fond memories of the last time he used two freshman pitchers – in 1996, when Triner and Jennifer Thompson pitched the Bulls into the NCAAs.
Eriksen said he sees some of Triner’s power and mindset in Trowell, while he likens Dugger to Thompson.
“And with Monica and J.T., we didn’t have a (redshirt sophomore) Corin Tassio,” Eriksen said. “You have a pitcher in Corin Tassio that throws it like J.T., has a mindset of a Monica, and she’s only 5-foot-3. She’s a bulldog and she’s a competitor, and she knows the game.
“We’re fortunate this year that we have three kids that can throw strikes.”
On such a young pitching corps, Callinan could be the X-factor. After walking on to the team last season, she pitched almost exclusively to left-handed hitters, impressing Eriksen with her poise and control.
“She’s on a different side of the planet, as far as I’m concerned,” Eriksen said. “She is one of my favorite people because of her simple approach to softball and to life. She’s just a great person, she has a great demeanor for the mound … you’ve got to love people like that.”
Freshman utility player Rachel Rosenbaum might also see duty in the circle.
Besides pitching, Turek played second base and contributed a team-high 14 doubles and a USF single-season record seven home runs in 2001. Trowell and two other newcomers will help fill the offensive void left by Turek and graduates Nikki Phillips and Priscilla Smith.
Holly Groves, a transfer from UAB, will take Phillips’ place in right field.
“Holly Groves adds something in the outfield we haven’t had since Janeen Sobush (1996-99), and that’s speed, power and the ability to track the ball in the outfield,” Eriksen said.
At first base, expect to see freshman Carmela Liwag getting the lion’s share of playing time.
“Carmela Liwag is a very special kid,” Eriksen said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a hitter that has the ability that she has in seeing the ball and getting the bat-head to the ball. Great hand-eye coordination on both sides of the plate, as a right-handed hitter and a left-handed hitter.”
Trowell, Groves and Liwag should provide a more consistent offensive presence than the Bulls had last year – Turek also led the team in strikeouts with 54.
“Cindy supplied us with a power threat. But the one thing that we didn’t get out of Cindy was consistency at the plate,” Eriksen said. “She batted .226, struck out 54 times, but every time she walked to the box, she was a threat to hit a home run.
“Well, by adding kids like Trowell and Groves who are not prone to striking out as much and they’re going to hit for a better average … we actually got more offensive by her not being in the lineup.”
Junior Rachel Williams steps in at second base for Turek, and five of last year’s starters return to their positions. Shelly Riker and Stephanie Roberts complete the outfield, and Courtney Lewellen continues to be the mainstay behind the plate.
The left side of the infield will be controlled by fifth-year senior third baseman Ginny Georgantas and shortstop Renee Oursler, both All-Conference USA first team choices in 2001.
Oursler, the lone Bull on the preseason all-league team, will be watched closely by one of the best players in USF history, new assistant coach Lea Mishlan. From 1997-2000, Mishlan set the standard at shortstop for the Bulls while compiling numerous single-season and career records.
Reserve infielders Tina Biersak and Stephanie Strickland left the team for personal reasons, as did Cindy Turek’s sister, Kristen, an outfielder.
The Bulls wear practice jerseys with the simple inscription “A + E” on the back.
“Attitude and effort,” Eriksen said. “Those are the only two things that we can control. I think that when we hit our downtime last year, it was the bad attitude and the lack of effort at one point last year that became a hold of our group.
“The players that basically initiated that and held forth for that are no longer with us either.”
Eriksen said his focus will be on day-to-day improvement, not wins and losses.
“And if we keep that perspective, I think we’re going to be OK,” Eriksen said.
The Bulls will need to be on top of their game from beginning to end, as this year’s schedule includes a slew of dangerous teams. In-state rivals Florida International and Florida are on the slate, as well as national champion Arizona. A rematch with Michigan looms Feb. 27, and C-USA foes Southern Miss and DePaul will be competitive again.
“When you take a look at a big wave right in the face, it always looks worse from the bottom, looking up,” Eriksen said with a laugh.
“But once you ride that wave, all of a sudden you realize, ‘You know what, we belong. We can play. We can ride this wave.’ And we proved that last year.”
- Contact Khari Williams at email@example.com