Conference champions or bust

It’s gone.

Yes, the winning streak the USF softball team (39-18, 8-0) had is gone. Also gone: coach Ken Eriksen’s mustache.

“I just let it grow when we were 11-11,” Eriksen said. “We had a good record since then, but then we lost to UCF (on April 12), so I shaved it off.”

Eriksen, the Olympic coach, the guy who has led his team to the NCAA Regionals the past three seasons, decided to do nothing else during winning streaks.

Especially the Bulls’ new one: undefeated in the Big East.

“Don’t think there’s going to be any piercings or tattoos,” said Eriksen, who’s 454-233-1 in 10 seasons at USF. “I’m pretty conservative when you get down to it. We’re just going to go out and do everything we can right.”

So far, so good for this year’s team which has won 27 of its last 35 games.

Just this past weekend, USF knocked off the Big East’s only ranked team: then-No. 18 Louisville.

But Eriksen wants you to believe this team’s not fancy. Perhaps he’s right. Just 15 home runs this year. There goes some highlights. And you can’t ignore the way USF Softball Complex is about as ugly as TomKat’s new baby.

“Don’t take that the wrong way. Wins are always going to be exciting,” Eriksen said. “But we’re focused on getting that ring on our finger: that conference championship.”

That’s right: The Big East has been something new to every team this year. But for the softball team it’s been the best start – next to the men’s soccer team – for any of the Bulls’ teams.

Eriksen has preached patience and endurance. He compiled a schedule that can match only the women’s basketball team’s in toughness. The number of ranked teams and tournaments lead Eriksen to call it a “marathon.”

So what are they running for? A Softball World Series title?

Or are they really just gunning for a conference championship?

You bet. They’ll take it for now and worry about extending the postseason later.

Right now, with Pittsburgh on Friday and Syracuse on Sunday, they’re looking to win those four games.

“You always expect to win, at least as a senior you do,” shortstop Christie Chapman said. “That is my goal right now, to win (the Big East) tournament.”

A lofty goal and you can’t fault her for wanting that. The Bulls never won a Conference USA Tournament.

So no one on this team will think about regionals. Forget about it. Not going to happen.

“I’m concerned with the conference, with Pittsburgh, with getting the ring,” Chapman said.

The ring that’s awarded to every conference’s champs. The seniors want a little bling before they graduate.

“We’ve got a conference tournament to win,” senior Tiffany Stewart said. “We want to win that, get the ring and then worry about (regionals) after that.”

So here’s the philosophy of this team: Win every game, worry about the rest later.

Ask Eriksen, and he’ll say those wins will come easy since his seniors have been doing it for some time.

“No one may be hitting .450 or anything, but this smart group has the ability to win. And they are the winningest group because if you look at their four-year track record, they’ve won more than anyone else. They know how to win ugly, and they know how to win big.”

Actually, they’ve won 195 “big” or “ugly” games through three and a half years. Impressive, though they’ve never gotten past regionals.

“This year, I think we have the team to make it past regionals,” Stewart said. “At USF we’re big numbers-wise, but not as nationally known. People sometimes underestimate us, but now that we can back up everything that we have, people are taking us seriously.”

People had better.

First in the Big East. Finally receiving votes: 14 of them.

But it’s not enough.

“I expect to win everything,” Eriksen said. “I seriously mean that. We’ve got that 70-game schedule, and when people ask what our record’s going to be, I say 70-0. But then again if you lose the first one, someone will ask about that. Usually I say we’re going to be 69-1 then.”

Added Stewart, “We always go out expecting to win.”

Expect this team deep in the Big East Tournament. Expect it to pass through regionals.

“There just hasn’t been a game where we haven’t taken the field thinking we were going to win,” Eriksen said. “We were 11-11 at one point. We weren’t getting good bounces. Honestly, we haven’t done anything different now than we were (doing) when were 11-11.”

Now, Eriksen, ready to win the last 12 games of the season, is clean shaven. That makes his players happy.

“I personally like him better (that) way,” Stewart said. “He looks a lot better; just don’t tell him that.”

Added Chapman, “I like it better when he shaves. It’s good that (the mustache) is gone.”

Can’t win them all, coach.