It was an exciting season for coach Ken Eriksen and the USF softball team, playing in a new stadium and with a new batch of talent.
USF finished the season with an RPI of 53, but a record of 33-21, paired with a first-round exit from the Big East tournament, wasn’t enough to earn the team an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament
Equipped with a young roster – seven freshmen played at least 30 games – the Bulls found themselves atop the Big East standings until a late slide abruptly ended their season.
“I think (this season) was the start of something big,” Eriksen said. “We were able to get a very talented freshman class a lot of playing time, and I think that they developed tremendously. I think you also saw some tremendous resilience in the fact that we had four or five people out of position because of some injuries. We had to find our identity right in the middle of the season.”
USF put four members on the all-Big East teams, two of them freshmen. Left-hander Sara Nevins earned a place on the first team with a 15-8 record, a 1.71 ERA, 193 strikeouts and eight saves. The other freshman, outfielder Courtney Goff, earned third-team considerations along with sophomore pitcher Lindsey Richardson and junior outfielder Gina Kafalas.
Another memorable aspect of the season was the debut of the new USF Softball Stadium. Completed just hours before the first pitch against Central Connecticut State on Feb. 24, the stadium welcomed 785 fans to watch as the Bulls cruised to a five-inning 8-0 win. USF posted a 17-8 home record and hosted powerhouses Alabama and Missouri.
According to Eriksen, the stadium is already paying dividends on the recruiting trail.
“Nationwide, we’re getting the accolades from the coaches that played here,” Eriksen said. “Nationwide, we’re getting the publicity of, ‘It’s the best place to play in the country.’ We’re starting to get phone calls from players who probably wouldn’t have called us before because of the glitz and glamour of other places, and now we have the glitz and the glamour. That place is selling itself. It’s helping our program become more noticed.
“I think we were a little secret before as far as how good the coaching staffs were, how good the team was, how good the environment here for academics is. But now, with that palace, you’ve got a front-page story. You see the beautiful ballpark, the palm trees, the setting of the dugouts, the batting cages are a great place to train, the bullpens are immaculate, the Donaldson Deck looking down – the aesthetics of the ballpark are where people want to be.”
Though the Bulls fell short of the NCAA tournament, they benefited from the experience of playing so many tournament teams. Of the 64 teams that qualified, USF played 15 of them with a record of 8-15, meaning that just six losses came against non-tournament teams. The Bulls played five teams that reached the Super Regionals, the “Sweet 16” of the softball tournament.
Playing quality teams is all part of Eriksen’s plan to get his team onto the national stage.
“We have to continue the responsibility as a team to play against those type of teams and the next step now is to win,” Eriksen said. “First, you’ve got to play, then you can get comfortable. Then, you can get good and then you can be great. I think we’re in a stage right now of going from comfortable to good, and I really look forward to the next two, three, four years.”
To achieve team goals, Eriksen says the positive trend in recruiting classes will have to continue.
“I think we’ve begun to turn the corner as far as blue chips en masse,” Eriksen said. “We used to get two, maybe three a year on a team. If you take a look at the 2012 team that’s on the field, you’re going to see four or five. When you take a look after that, you’ll see six or seven, and then it just keeps getting better and better for us. It’s not just about the Xs and Os. The Xs and Os are great, but if you don’t have the Jims and the Joes, you’re not going anywhere. Smoke and mirrors are great for a while, but smoke clears and mirrors break.”
If Eriksen’s prediction that this season was the start of something big is correct, USF could soon find itself among the perennial softball powerhouses.