New-look Bulls look forward to NCAA tourney

At the end of the 2002 season, USF softball coach Ken Eriksen said, “This has been the worst situation ever at USF,” and “There are good things coming next year.”

Eriksen’s conviction, that a 24-33-1 ledger was uncharacteristic for the Bulls and that an incoming class of athletes would improve his squad, was vindicated by this year’s 53-17 record.

A return to form, and a return to the NCAA where they were last seen in 2001, have the Bulls at No. 19 in the nation and in better shape than they were two years ago.

After finishing second in Conference USA by suffering 7-0 loss to DePaul in the C-USA tournament final, the Bulls will travel to Gainesville today for the NCAA Regionals.

USF shares the regional bracket with Florida, Florida State, Texas-Arlington, Bethune-Cookman, Oklahoma, Oregon State and Florida Atlantic.

“You have to look at it like we are the best team in the region,” starting pitcher Leigh Ann Ellis said before junior Shelly Riker finished her sentence with, “Because we are.”

The Bulls’ vow to be the best team in the region will start today at 9 a.m. against FAU.

Despite USF’s first win against the Panthers in four tries, the team feels confident that it can advance to face the winner of the Oklahoma (39-12) and BCC (45-19) contest.

“We played (FAU) earlier in the year, and I pitched that game,” Ellis said. “I didn’t feel I pitched my best ,(but we still won).

“Hopefully, we can come out hot and win right away.”

The odds should be in the Bulls’ favor if Ellis feels inclined to show FAU her best stuff, because it is some of the best stuff USF has ever seen.

The junior is 33-9, while posting a 1.09 ERA in 55 appearances for the Bulls this season.

“I figured that I would get a lot of innings,” Ellis said. “I didn’t know it was going to be quite this many, but that’s fine with me because that’s what I’m here to do.”

Her 33 wins tops Monica Triner’s mark of 25 set in 1998.

In her first year with USF, Ellis also broke a seven-year old mark by throwing 312 strikeouts, shattering Triner’s record of 169 in a season.

Even though she has thrown a lot of innings, Eriksen is going to stick with what works.

“She’s proven that she’s a worth-while competitor for us right now,” Eriksen said. “And she has done a great job against the best teams in the country. So I don’t see any reason not to throw her continuously through the weekend.”

This year’s version of Bulls’ softball doesn’t just differ from last year’s squad, but also from the team that was one game away from the College World Series in 2001.

“They’re strong one through 10,” Eriksen said. “They are better hitters from one to 10 all the way down the lineup (than in 2001), and they have a lot more power and better speed.”

While the 2001 squad had more experience, this year’s Bulls have a more optimistic and better attitude.

“This year’s team has a really great attitude and a lot of great athletes, all the way from the freshmen to the seniors,” said outfielder Renee Oursler, who was a sophomore on the 2001 team. “I think it’s a totally different team. I think it’s a really great team. We have a really great chance.”

The Bulls have nine freshmen and sophomores heading to Gainesville with four starting, including freshman Krista Holle at third, Christie Chapman at shortstop and Kattrina Dowd at second.

“We haven’t changed our lineup from game one this year,” Eriksen said. “Holle at third, Chappy at short (and) Dowd at second, and we’ll splice in some of the other kids here and there.

“The freshmen are at the middle of our infield and they’ve played well.”

Another young gun at the corner of the diamond has been providing the Bulls with a big punch. Carmela Liwag has led the team driving in 53 runs.

Even though this is many of the Bulls’ first tournament appearance, Eriksen said their regular season schedule has prepared them for what’s ahead.

“If you think about it, they just played five games against the No. 4 team in the country (DePaul) over the last two weeks and did pretty good,” Eriksen said. “But we played against some really good competition, and they’ve played against the best in the country this year.”

While the Bulls rely on their youngsters, they are still led by a core of veterans.

Ellis, Oursler and senior Courtney Lewellen are leading the way in the statistics and the dugout.

Lewellen leads the team with a .378 batting average and also has proven to be the Bulls’ clubhouse general.

“I think it’s invaluable leadership from Courtney Lewellen right now,” Eriksen said. “She’s played hurt the last month and a half of the season and there’s no complaints. She comes to play. And not only play, but she has to be catcher every day.”

If the 2001 Bulls made it one game shy of the College World Series, then what some team members consider a better team — the current edition of USF softball — may just take it one step farther.

“If you take a look and compare to it, the difference is really age,” Eriksen said. “2001 is a team that had some experience (because they had) been there in ’98 when we went to regionals. This team right now is a little younger, and they seem to be a little hungrier.

“It’s going to be fun to watch them play.”