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Diverging paths

USF softball players Carmela Liwag and Kattrina Dowd couldn’t be much closer to each other on the field. The Bulls’ starting first and second basemen, respectively, Liwag and Dowd man the right side of the infield.

Though the two players may be close on the field, the two couldn’t be further apart at the plate, especially since the start of the Conference USA season. And it might be difficult to fathom considering Dowd is second on the team with a .423 average, and Liwag is third with a .392 average.

Dowd was USF’s most productive hitter early in the season, while Liwag, who hit better than .300, was left unnoticed because other players were off to unbelievable starts.

But since the C-USA season began 15 games ago, Liwag has taken over as arguably USF’s most dominating presence at the plate, while Dowd has found herself in her worst slump of the year, basically making it a tale of two players in two different seasons.

“Definitely I’ve been in a slump,” Dowd said. “It’s just one of those things you go through. You have your ups-and-downs in a season.”

Just before USF opened its league schedule on the road against Louisville, Dowd was threatening to crack a .500 batting average. It was rare for Dowd not to reach base every time she stepped up to the plate, and when senior Holly Groves continued to break single-season school records, a lot of that credit had to go to USF’s non-prototypical leadoff hitter.

“(Dowd’s) the most underrated leadoff batter in the country right now,” USF coach Ken Eriksen said. “She’s so multi-faceted. She provides us with a lot of options and a lot of opportunities to score a lot of runs.”

A prototypical leadoff hitter uses a slap technique to utilize speed to reach base. And though Dowd has that feature in her batting resume, she also has great power, which provides numerous problems for opposing defenses.

“I love being underrated because I like when everyone doubts me,” Dowd said. “That’s just my game. I know when teams creep up on me then I know, ‘Hey, I’m going to hit away,’ because I know that will open up the slap for me the rest of the game.

“I really am not a power hitter. I just consider myself a single hitter. But if I catch one, I catch one and it goes, and I guess I have to give all the credit to the bat.”

But Dowd isn’t ready to put the blame for her recent woes on the 30-ounce piece of aluminum. Her technique, however, is another story, and that’s been hard to correct without the one person around who knows how to correct it. Dowd’s had to persevere through much of the season without Eriksen, as his duties as an assistant on the U.S. Olympic team have kept him away from the Bulls.

“It’s hard with Ken not being here because I do rely on Ken a lot because he probably knows my swing better than I do,” Dowd said. “It’s hard when he’s not here and you feel something that’s not totally right.”

And it hasn’t been right for Dowd since the conference season began. Dowd is hitting .286 with one home run and 10 RBIs. Before the final game of the Saint Louis series, in which she went 4-for-4, her conference average was at .200.

“I think we’ve been seeing a different type of pitching, and I’ve struggled against that,” Dowd said.

Dowd’s also been struggling with an injury, although she said that’s not the reason for the slump. But the worst part of the slump is her inability to break it.

“I’m struggling with a lot of things right now,” Dowd said. “(But) the only reason I did so well early in the season was because my teammates were there.”

Liwag’s always been there, but in conference play, she’s been there even more. Through the first 15 games, Liwag is hitting .509 and leads C-USA in hits, doubles and total bases, and is tied for the conference lead with teammate Groves with 17 RBIs.

“I didn’t think I was hitting that well,” Liwag said. “I was thinking around the .300 range. The hits are falling.”

Three hits fell on Sunday for Liwag in USF’s victory against East Carolina, two of which landed over the wall. Liwag became the first player — at least in the last nine seasons at USF — to homer from both sides of the plate for the Bulls. It served as a nice 21st birthday present.

“It felt really good actually,” Liwag said. “Being that it was my birthday, it was fun.”

While Dowd may be a non-prototypical leadoff hitter, Liwag is a non-prototypical hitter. Though baseball may provide a flux of switch hitters, talent from both sides of the plate in softball is a rare commodity.

“I have yet to see one,” Liwag said. “I think mainly because left-handed hitters are more desired in softball.”

And that makes Liwag, who has a .392 overall average with 15 doubles and 37 RBIs, much more dangerous at the plate.

“Carmela’s a phenomenal athlete, and she never ceases to amaze me every day. It was a great day (Sunday) for her, and I have never seen that done,” USF associate head coach Stacey Heintz said. “I have never seen a full switch-hitter. A lot of times you see some right-handed hitters who do go up lefty but slap at the plate. (But) she has mastered both sides with the best of them.”

After leading USF in RBIs last season, which was the single-season record before Groves broke it this season, Liwag was expected to produce runs at the same pace this season. And though she’s on pace to do just that, Liwag’s accomplishments have gone overlooked because of what other players have put together this season.

“I think, honestly, the fact that we have two people having such phenomenal years … Carmela’s been on fire all year. I just think it’s been a little overshadowed,” Heintz said. “If anything, she started out great and has just gotten better through the year, and now in conference she’s doing a fantastic job for us.”

Though Dowd may be in a slump and Liwag may be on fire, the hitting success or woes could change any time. But both Dowd and Liwag are able to stay relaxed no matter what happens to them individually, knowing that everyone in USF’s lineup is capable of producing runs.

“It’s really good to be able to go up there and know if I’m not doing good that day and if I’m not seeing the ball well, there’s someone else who will go up there and get the runs in,” Liwag said.

“Our team is totally all about our team, and that helps because if I don’t get on base to start a game then there’s Shelly (Riker) and Carmela, and all the way through our lineup there’s someone to pick me up,” Dowd said. “We’re having an unbelievable season … all that really matters right now is how we’re doing as a team.”