GAINESVILLE – Despite a four-run, seventh-inning rally by Florida Atlantic University that had USF coach Ken Eriksen looking toward the sky for answers, the USF softball team held on to defeat the Owls 7-4 and win the Gainesville Regional Round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
USF, which advanced to its first-ever Super Regional round by going undefeated this weekend, will now face No. 1 UCLA, the winner of the Los Angeles Regional. The game will be held at the Bruins’ Easton Field Stadium.
“It got a little hairy there in the seventh inning, and all you can really attribute that to is bad luck,” Eriksen said. “Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the softball gods and hope that you’ve scored enough runs so the softball gods don’t snatch it away from you.”
While it looked a little shaky for the Bulls toward the end, the softball gods must have been on USF’s side for the majority of Sunday’s contest.
After facing FAU on Saturday and escaping with a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to solid pitching and a Christie Chapman home run, the Bulls seemed to have Owls pitcher Jen Mussilo’s number Sunday. The junior right-hander, who had allowed only three hits and one run against the Bulls on Saturday, was dominated to the tune of 11 hits and seven runs Sunday.
“I think you have to give a lot of credit to Jen Musillo for the way she played in this tournament,” Eriksen said. “I also believe you have to give a lot of credit to the young ladies in the black tops today for making adjustments and laying off of a lot of junk.”
The Bulls, who sported their black jerseys in the championship game, spent the previous night watching Musillo pitch and decided the best way to beat the Owls’ ace was to stay conservative and try to keep the ball on the ground.
“She’s a great pitcher,” senior right fielder Tiffany Stewart said. “I think she only threw like 68 pitches (Saturday), so obviously she did well, but we saw her yesterday and we were able to make some adjustments, not chase so much and just try to hit the ball on the ground.”
The adjustments helped the Bulls jump out to a five-run lead after three innings, and their pitching staff held FAU scoreless until the seventh inning.
Starter Bree Spence allowed four runs in two innings before being relieved by left-hander Kasey Cash, who was brought in with runners in scoring position and retired two batters in a row to preserve the lead. Freshman Cristi Ecks relieved Cash and finished the game, allowing four runs, all of which were scored in the bottom of the seventh.
After the game, Eriksen praised the play of his freshman pitcher, who allowed only those four runs in 13 innings of work during the tournament.
“Cristi Ecks has been battling tendonitis throughout the year and had a real tight forearm muscle today,” Eriksen said. “But she’s never complained all year, and it got down to the time when we needed her the most, and she really stepped up for us. She’s been outstanding.”
Despite dominating the Owls for most of the game, Ecks said she was not surprised when FAU began scoring runs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“I knew it was going to be a fight to the end,” Ecks said. “I was just kind of waiting for them to make it interesting and make it tough on us. I was really like, ‘Man, I knew they were going to do this to me.’ I’m (just) glad we were able to hold out.”
USF- 9. FAU- 4
SOFTBALL GAME TIMENo. 21 USF (50-23) vs. No. 1 UCLA (46-7)When: Game 1, Sat., 3 p.m.; Game 2, Sun., 3 p.m.; Game 3, Sun., 6 p.m.Where: Easton Field Stadium, Calif.TV: ESPNU