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Familiar faces greet Bulls at Speedline

For USF softball players Samantha Ray and Sarah Watson, this weekend’s Speedline Invitational will be part homecoming, part family reunion.

A year ago, both players were competing against Illinois’ best high school players. Now, with the stakes higher, they will face their old foes again.

Out of the teams in the Invitational, 3-14 Illinois-Chicago and 8-1 Illinois will both be competing, with the No. 22 (21-4) Bulls playing Illinois in the first game of pool play. Ray and Watson both hail from the Chicago area and have played against several softball players from both teams. Watson’s older sister is also a former Illini player.

“It’ll be fun, and I know a lot of players from both teams,” Watson said. “Illinois has a pitcher that beat my team in state in high school, Abby Lovejoy. Sam and I both played with a girl from UI. I know all the girls on the team, and my sister is good friends with a lot of them.”

Ray also grew up and played with a lot of girls from both teams.

“I played with one girl from Illinois’ team and with Illinois-Chicago, about four to five, so I know a lot of them,” Ray said.

The Bulls aren’t scheduled to play against Illinois-Chicago, but it was the Flames that last dealt USF a loss on Feb. 8. Since then, the Bulls haven’t lost while outscoring their opponents 86-23.

The Bulls will have their work cut out for them. Regarded as one of the top college softball tournaments in the nation, the Speedline Invitational features 24 teams from 16 states. Seven teams come in nationally ranked, with No. 4 (17-0-1) Washington and No. 11 (14-6) Stanford the headliners.

The Bulls went 1-4 in pool play last year, and USF coach Ken Eriksen would like to see his team bounce back from that poor showing.

“I think if you look at that record, we were what, 8-24 (actually 7-16-1) at this point?” Eriksen said. “Last year was last year.”

USF has the undesirable task of facing No. 11 Stanford, the defending Speedline champion, in pool play. The Bulls will also play Long Island-Brooklyn, Coastal Carolina, Western Michigan and Illinois.

“The competition in our pool play is probably just as good competition we’ve faced all year,” Eriksen said.

“We’ve faced teams like Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Arizona, so it’s nothing more and nothing less than teams we’ve played already. We’re trying to do the same thing, and that’s win every ballgame and dominate from the get-go.”

The Bulls play Illinois and LIU-Brooklyn (3-4) tonight at 4 and 6 p.m. respectively, while facing Stanford and Coastal Carolina (11-1) Saturday and round out pool play Sunday against Western Michigan (5-5).