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Shedding green in search of gold

It’s more than a month away, but the drama and excitement is already in the air.

When the USF softball team hosts the Speedline Tournament at the Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater in the first week of March, an unprecedented situation will occur when the Bulls square off against the United States national team.

U.S.A. against the Bulls — the most recognized event in college athletics. Probably not to the naked eye, but this match-up comes with an added twist.

Sure, numerous college teams have squared off against the nation’s best softball players. In fact, six other college softball teams will play in the round-robin tournament against the U.S. team, which will be gearing up for another run at a possible gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

But when the Green and Gold face off against the Red, White and Blue in this exhibition game, it has to be one of, if not the, weirdest situations ever to arise in college sports.

USF softball coach Ken Eriksen was selected as one of the assistants for the American squad, meaning he will miss some of the Bulls’ regular season games while helping the national team gear up for its Olympic run.

As one of the tournament directors, Eriksen was able to avoid scheduling conflicts between his two teams — the Bulls will play both games each day in the morning, while the U.S. will play both games at night, allowing Eriksen to serve on both staffs.

However, there wasn’t anything that could be done for the USA vs. USF matchup. And so, a decision had to be made.

“When it comes to the 6 o’clock (USF) game against U.S.A. on Saturday (March 6), I’m going to be in the United States’ dugout,” Eriksen said.

The Bulls head coach will coach AGAINST his own team during the regular season. Anyone ever heard of that?

“I don’t think anyone has been in this situation where they’ve gone against their head coach,” said associate head coach Stacey Heintz, who will serve as the Bulls head coach during the game and also while coach Eriksen is away for approximately 30 games during the season. “I’m sure seeing Ken in the other color uniform is going to be a little strange at first.”

So how do the players perceive the situation?

“Of course it’s going to be fun if you think about it,” sophomore shortstop Christie Chapman said. “(And) we know how important it is to him, and how important it is to this program.”

And let’s not forget how well-deserving Eriksen is.

Eriksen has been the head coach at USF for eight years. Through his numerous accomplishments on the field with the Bulls — including four NCAA Regional tournament appearances, two Conference USA titles, Southeast Region Coach of the Year honors and only one losing season — he was chosen by USA head coach Mike Candrea, who also coaches perennial national-championship contender Arizona, to be a part of the Olympic staff in 2001.

“It’s going to be a fun time, but at the same time I don’t want our kids at USF to think it’s just a fun time to play against the Olympic team,” Eriksen said. “I want them to try and go out there and win the ball game.”

With those words coming out of Eriksen’s mouth, it makes one wonder exactly who he’s rooting for. And that may be the toughest thing for Eriksen in this eerie predicament.

“It’s a good question,” Eriksen said laughing. “(But) when game-time comes, when you put your uniform on and you’re doing your job — I’ve already told Coach Candrea that we’re going to play this game straight up.”

And therein lies the problem, though a fun one. If there was anyone who knows how to beat a team, wouldn’t it be its head coach? How is anyone supposed to prepare for that?

But the Bulls think they will be just fine.

“I think it will give us an extra boost,” senior outfielder Holly Groves said. “I think it will just put an extra little step in everyone, and everyone will just play above themselves.

“I think it’s an honor to have my coach with the Olympic team — that’s cool. And if I get to play against them and (possibly) beat them, that’s cool too,”

Though Eriksen may be shedding the green from his uniform for a possible chance to add a little more gold, for all the people involved, the circumstances are well understood and accepted.

“I know deep down in his heart he wants USF to have the best year possible,” Heintz said. “His heart is here, and we know that.

“It’s going to be hard for the girls, and it’s going to be hard for the coaching staff as well, but I know when he sees our girls do well he’s going to be smiling.”