Last season was a sweet one for Ken Eriksen and Eddie Cardieri.
Both veteran coaches returned to the NCAA Softball and Baseball Regionals, respectively, for the first time in a few years. 1997 was the last time Cardieri’s Bulls made the Regionals, while Eriksen ended a three-year drought last year. Both teams, which relied heavily on a core group of senior talent, received at-large bids.
But what a difference a year can make.
Both the baseball and softball teams will have an uphill struggle if back-to-back trips to the Regionals are on the agenda. Both teams have gone through major makeovers, and it will take Cardieri’s and Eriksen’s best efforts to reshape their clubs into postseason participants this year.
Having covered the baseball team last season, I watched Cardieri and the Bulls grow throughout the season. Stocked with a slew of talented seniors, all of whom had never tasted the NCAA Tournament in their careers, the Bulls looked unbeatable one game and incapable the next. Consistency, particularly early in the season, was something that escaped the Bulls. But all that changed on a trip to Louisiana.
After getting beat up in five straight losses at Arizona and at home against eventual national champion Miami, Cardieri and the Bulls got it together. The next series, against conference bully Tulane, proved to be USF’s most important of the year.
But it didn’t start out that way. The Green Wave hammered the Bulls in the series opener to run USF’s losing streak to six, and the ship appeared to be sinking. But the Bulls bounced back to win the next two and became the first team in two years to beat the Green Wave in their house.
USF began a steady climb, culminating in an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in Wilson, N.C. USF finished third, eventually bounced from the tourney by Ben Thurmond, a buzzsaw masquerading as a Winthrop pitcher. But to consider last year’s accomplishments anything less than a success would be insane.Now Cardieri will once again be tested as he attempts to replace some big bats and reliable arms, including the heart of the Bulls lineup and their No. 1 starter, in an effort to return to his eighth NCAA postseason.
John Vigue, who at times seemed able to will the ball by opponents, might be the easiest to replace in terms of numbers. Stanford transfer Ryan Gloger will fit nicely in the No. 1 role for the Bulls. I saw Gloger throw in high school for Jesuit, and the kid is flat-out nasty. Replacing Vigue’s guts and guile will be a bit trickier.
For the first time in four years, Cardieri won’t be filling the names Ben Drawdy, Dan Boyd and Mike Eylward, USF’s No. 1, 3 and 4 hitters ,respectively, on his lineup card. USF loses a combined 20 home runs, 129 RBI’s and a dugout full of experience in those three guys. Look for a pair of left-handed sticks, Kris Courier and Chris Cuccia, to step up big this season. Courier has 15-20 home run potential if given the at-bats, and after a tough season last year, look for Cuccia to find his stroke and be more comfortable as he leaves his days in the outfield and returns to first base.
Eriksen will also have the unenviable task of replacing some key figures, including almost his entire pitching staff. Gone are Cindy Turek, Jamie Peterka, Jaimie Anderson and Jessi Kowal, with the latter three comprising the staff for the past two years. The Bulls’ most experienced arm will be Gail Callinan, who threw 13.1 innings last season. Eriksen will have to find a consistent rotation to handle the rigors of a 70-plus game schedule.
First team All-Conference USA selection Renee Oursler and Courtney Lewellen return to anchor the Bulls’ lineup, but Eriksen will sorely miss Turek’s bat.
USF will also miss two players from the Vigue school of intensity, Priscilla Smith and Nikki Phillips.
How quickly will Cardieri’s Bulls come together? How will Eriksen replace the gaping holes in the pitching staff? Can both duplicate the success they enjoyed last season?
Let’s play ball.
- Contact Senior Staff Writer Brandon Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org