Bulls take lessons from national champs

The Los Angeles Lakers have talent, the New York Yankees have camaraderie and the New England Patriots have a strong work ethic. These teams all have one thing in common: they are champions.

In order to be a champion you must possess these qualities, and the University of South Florida softball team is trying to obtain them to get to the next level.

“Together we are a very strong unit. We have gone through a lot as a team,” left fielder Shelly Riker said. “Because of that fondness between us no one is going to come in our way. We have so much potential on this team. We’ve worked harder on this team than any other team I have been on.”

Though it is only the third weekend of the season and still way too early to be talking about championships, the Bulls know what it will take to be a championship team.

They will face the defending national champions Arizona this weekend when they play in the University of Arizona Softball Classic.

USF coach Ken Eriksen said the Wildcats are champions because of their talent and work ethic.

“They have really strong people in the (pitching) circle. They’ve got people in there that can convert the strikeout with a runner on third base,” Eriksen said. “The other thing they have is experience. Every one of their kids has played on a championship team day in and day out. They know how to win and they’re not used to losing.”Talent is a key necessity to having a championship team and so is execution.

“I think that execution is a big thing,” Riker said. “You don’t have to have the greatest team in the world, but you have to be smart and you have to be able to execute, to run the bases, be smart on the base path and also you just have to go out there and have fun.”

One of the more frustrating things that most teams need for a championship is luck. Teams need limited injuries, balls to bounce their way and fair calls by the umpires. Luck can turn against you just as easily as it can be your ally. In the past it helped the Bulls in the playoffs but at the same time kept them out of the World Series.

“Last year against Michigan in the first game we went 13 innings and a ball falls in and we’re undefeated going into championship play,” Eriksen said. “But you’ve got to create your own luck, and Arizona is relentless.”

Teams that win titles earn it by winning big games and believing in their team. Eriksen said USF is developing that kind of attitude and using it to help carry them toward success.

“We know how to beat teams when it comes to the big game,” Eriksen said. “Last year, we beat Oregon State out in California and then beat them in the first round of the playoffs and then knocked Alabama out of their own region. It shows you that our kids can play with that mentality and now they just have to think that they can play every single day with that mentality.”

The Bulls will have to prove that mentality this weekend when they will face Auburn and New Mexico State on Friday, Louisville and the Wildcats Saturday and Notre Dame on Sunday.

They also face top players. Among them is the Wildcats All-American, Jennie Finch, who is 5-0 with an ERA of 1.06 with just four earned runs. Eriksen coached Finch last summer as part of the national team and knows what quality a pitcher she is.

“Two good things about coaching her this summer are: No. 1 we found out what she does have and No. 2 it doesn’t matter,” Eriksen said. “She’s going to throw it up there pretty good and challenge you.”

Another pitcher for Arizona with a South Florida twist is Jenny Gladding who is a Florida native and was recruited by the Bulls.Coaches know that talent alone will not give you a lot of postseason success and when they look for players they try to recruit people who are dedicated to the game and will fit in well with their teammates.

Eriksen has seen this over the last three years and changed his recruiting style to fit these criteria.

“The kid that throws the hardest or hits the farthest, that’s not going to win any championships,” Eriksen said. “Arizona and UCLA have proven that. They have gone out and gotten kids that are good kids from good families that can also play at a high level of softball and that’s where we have changed our recruiting style in the last three or four years.”

  • Bryan Fazio covers softball and can be reached at oraclebryan@yahoo.com