Softball to begin season of high expectations

After enjoying one of the best seasons in school history last year and returning the core of a 59-14 team that advanced to the NCAA Regional tournament, the USF softball team enters the 2004 season with some high expectations, both for itself and from its peers.

The Bulls begin their season this weekend with a pair of split doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday against in-state opponents Florida Atlantic and Bethune-Cookman in the USF Louisville Slugger Tournament at the USF softball complex.

“This weekend will be our first competition,” USF coach Ken Eriksen said. “We had basically one day of competition in the fall, so now everything is on the line and it means something. What I’m really looking for is execution, pitching and defense to help us through this weekend. I’d really like to see our pitching and defense take the first move for us into the year.”

This may be why the Bulls likely will turn to last season’s standout pitcher, senior Leigh Ann Ellis, in order to get the team off to a good start. Ellis, the preseason Conference USA Pitcher of the Year, and the rest of Bulls get a chance to prove all of the preseason hype surrounding the team was valid, including being picked to win the C-USA title by the league’s coaches.

Though the Bulls are grateful for all the preseason excitement, Eriksen doesn’t believe that it will make his team a lock to win anything, and that the Bulls must stay focused on their game in order to be successful.

“In all honesty, the preseason picks are a nice accolade on what we did last year, and that’s pretty much all it is,” Eriksen said. “They recognize that we have a pretty good team coming back, obviously, but we still have to do the things we need to do in respect of execute, play flawless softball, get some good bounces going our way, avoid the injury bug and then we have a chance to do a lot of things throughout the year.”

More importantly for the Bulls is the opportunity to open the season at home in the first of seven tournaments for the team this season.

“There’s no question about it,” Eriksen said. “You’re in a good comfort zone, you get to sleep in your own beds, you’re not really in a structure to take yourself out of your comfort zone.”

But as comfortable as it may be playing at home, the Bulls must deal with another important aspect of the season on Saturday, as Eriksen will be away from the team. Due to his commitment to the United States national team, which is gearing up for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. As an assistant coach, Eriksen will be away from his team for a good part of the season. Eriksen said it could be beneficial for the Bulls to play their first two games without him in order for the team to get used to the fact of him not being able to attend every game.

“I think that’s a real good point, that yeah, this is the way it’s going to be,” Eriksen said. “I’m going to be gone about 50 percent of the time, and this weekend I’m going to miss two out of four games. So yeah, it’s an indication of what we’re going to do this year in respect of that environment.

“(However), it’s not an indication of how we’re going to do the rest of the year in terms of W’s and L’s, but we’re planning on winning four games this weekend. I feel good about our team, and our team is prepared. But we have to get used to that because we are going to be in those types of situations.”

Associate head coach Stacey Heintz will serve as head coach on Saturday and all other games Eriksen will miss.