Steps toward the series

There is a common message echoed throughout the softball team that starts from USF coach Ken Eriksen: Expect to win.

Last year, the team did just that, and it’s time for this year’s squad to take the next step.

The next step for the Bulls is reaching the College World Series after coming up just short in 2006. That is the direction that Eriksen wants this team to take, and he believes the Bulls can play with the best teams in the country.

“I think it would be irresponsible if they didn’t take anything from what they learned last year,” Eriksen said. “We want to position ourselves to be able to improve and have that opportunity again.”

The softball team leaned on its pitching and defense early in the season and late during its postseason run last year, and this year should be the same. However, the Bulls’ offensive firepower is a question mark, with three of the top five hitters from 2006 graduating.

Krista Holle, Christie Chapman, Samantha Ray and Tiffany Stewart were a big reason USF won the Gainesville region and reached the Super Regionals last season. All four players averaged more than 200 at-bats, including 19 home runs and 138 RBI. They combined for a .314 batting average.

Britta Giddens, who was the leadoff hitter last season, and junior college transfer Aya Nakajima will be looked at for hitting ability at the top of the lineup. Giddens was a surprise as a freshman, batting .277 with 13 doubles and 36 runs scored. Nakajima is the wildcard, but Eriksen believes her bat will be big in the lineup.”(Nakajima) is going to add a lot of pop in the lineup, and she will probably bat in the third spot,” Eriksen said.

Danielle Urbanik, Ashley Bullion and Courtney Mosch will be responsible for driving in runs in the middle of the lineup. Urbanik brings power to the lineup with five home runs in 80 at-bats last season, and Bullion had 30 RBI.

Eriksen isn’t as worried about scoring runs as he is holding opponents off the scoreboard. The success of this year’s squad will hang on the success of the pitching staff, which has added depth this season.

Junior Bree Spence and sophomore Cristi Ecks will lead the staff as a dominant 1-2 punch. The duo combined for 45 wins, along with 22 complete-game victories and has an ERA under 1.50. Kasey Cash started three games last year, with three saves, and can come in during any situation to get outs.

“We are in pretty good shape this year with Ecks and Spence, along with Kasey Cash, who is the glue of the pitching staff because she comes in, in any type of situation,” Eriksen said. “We have pretty good depth on the pitching staff, and I have been sleeping pretty well at night.”

One thing that may keep Eriksen up at night is an injury to Spence’s pitching shoulder, which required off-season surgery. Spence hurt her right shoulder during conditioning drills last season and pitched the entire season with a torn labrum. Despite rehabbing the injury throughout the season, Spence knew surgery was inevitable”It was very difficult pitching with that all season, and it just got progressively worse to where I couldn’t take it,” Spence said. “Rehab wasn’t helping at all, so I had the surgery, and that was hard. It was probably the longest time in my life that I didn’t pitch.”

Spence used the time after surgery to rest, but she also realized the opportunity she has been given. She appreciates the game more now than before and is just happy she is healthy again.

Spence isn’t worried too much about her shoulder on the mound and believes that if she prepares herself mentally, everything else will take care of itself. She is excited to be back on the mound and isn’t concerned with her stats this season.

“I’ve never been a pitcher that is real big in the numbers because you can pitch the best game of your life and lose,” Spence said. “So if I feel I’ve done a good job, my coach feels I’ve done a good job and my teammates are satisfied, that’s my goal.”Ecks recorded more than 200 innings pitched last season and had an 8.25 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Being a freshman, Ecks learned many lessons during the season and one very important lesson in the offseason.

“After the season was over, I did nothing until August because I needed a break and to heal my arm and my body,” Ecks said. “I tried not to do much in the offseason, and then I got back to school and just worked on my pitches and tried to get stronger.”Despite the success in her first season, Ecks admits the wear and tear of a long season took its toll. She also realized that one bad game doesn’t make or break a season.

Eriksen helped Ecks understand that she wasn’t going to strike out every hitter she faced and that ground balls were good. Ecks, a strikeout pitcher in high school, is willing to let her defense play behind her.

Both pitchers aren’t concerned with the offensive contribution from this year’s team because they believe that the new players will fill in the spots. However, the success of the team will ultimately hinge on pitching and defense.