USF softball pitcher Sara Nevins spent time at the hospital with her father Joe on Thursday morning, as he recovered from bypass surgery following a heart attack on Tuesday night.
Less than six hours later, the Big East Pitcher of the Year stepped into the circle to face Providence in the first round of the Big East tournament at the USF softball stadium, and led the Bulls to a 3-0 victory with six shutout innings.
Over the course of three games in three days, the junior left-hander from Pinellas Park threw 365 pitches in 22 and 2/3 innings, and didn’t surrender a run — striking out 25, while allowing only 10 hits and four walks, winning Most Outstanding player and, along with the rest of the team, the first Big East conference championship in school history on Saturday.
“I tried to put everything behind me and focus on playing the game with my teammates, knowing anything can happen,” Nevins said. “My dad told me to do it for him.”
In Friday’s semifinal, the No. 24 Bulls defeated and shutout the No. 11 Louisville Cardinals, a team that averaged close to seven runs per game this year, by a score of 3-0.
It was the first time USF played Louisville this year, and the first time the Cardinals were shut out since March.
The Cardinals, one of just four squads that handed a loss to the No. 1-ranked Oklahoma Sooners, were dominated by Nevins’ accuracy on inside pitches at 74 mph, which kept the dangerous Cardinals from extending the barrel of the bat into the ball.
Nevins, who occasionally mixed in 60 mph pitches outside the strike zone to keep the Cardinals off balance, said the game plan was to pitch inside.
The result was only four strikeouts, but countless foul-outs, pop-ups and ground balls.
It wasn’t the typical strikeout-laced Nevins performance that Bulls fans have grown accustomed to, but it may have been her best of the year.
Saturday’s championship game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was the first nationally-televised game for the Bulls this season, which aired live on ESPN2.
After nine innings of a classic pitcher’s duel between Nevins and Big East Player of the Year Laura Winter, who Nevins struck out four times and happens to be Notre Dame’s best power hitter, emotion filled the USF softball stadium heading to the 10th inning.
As the two teams waited during an extended television timeout after the ninth inning, USF freshman catcher Lee Ann Spivey stood in the on-deck circle anticipating the biggest at-bat of her career while “Wagon Wheel” by the Old Crow Medicine Show played through the stadium speakers.
“I had butterflies,” she said. “The best way for me to calm down is to listen to a song and sing it. So I was singing ‘Wagon Wheel,’ but I knew something had to be done.”
Then Spivey made solid contact, driving the ball to the left side of the infield, and raced to first base.
As she reached the base, an errant throw by the third baseman bounced along the sideline fence, allowing Spivey to hustle into scoring position at second base, sparking the loudest roar heard all year at the stadium.
Two batters later, freshman second baseman Monica Santos singled to advance Spivey to third.
The volume rose again.
With two runners on base, junior outfielder Ashli Goff stepped to the plate and hit a line drive that slightly ricocheted off of Winter’s leg, altering the defense’s approach and allowing Spivey to score.
The Bulls took a 1-0 lead heading to the bottom of the tenth inning.
As USF coach Ken Eriksen walked to the dugout, in perhaps the coolest gesture of the day, he stopped and calmly signaled to the student section and fans as the crowd reached a new level of volume, clapping and chanting in unison as Bulls neared victory.
“We just missed a few home runs and big hits off of Winter throughout the game,” Eriksen said. “As it turns out, look who gets the big hit for us — the little slapper Ashli Goff hits the hardest ball for us all day, off of the pitcher’s leg.”
Nevins finished off two Notre Dame batters before she was called for an illegal pitch on what would have been the last out of the game.
Eriksen entered senior Lindsey Richardson to retire the final out.
After Richardson struck out Notre Dame’s last batter on three pitches, the player whoexemplified everything thatEriksen said he ever asked for in astudent-athlete, one that brought a tear to his eye on senior day, jumped in the infield as her teammates stormed the fieldto celebrate.
Eriksen stepped off the field as the team received their individual plaques and the Big East trophy.
“I love teaching. I like to see my students get rewarded for doing the right things,” he said. “They’re doing great in the classroom, too … They work really hard and they have fun.”
Spivey, a key contributor for the Bulls in her freshman season, rooted for the Bulls last year as a senior in high school following them to the Women’s College World Series.
“It’s so exciting knowing that we have a chance to get back there again starting with regionals and to know that we’re the lastchampions of the Big East,” she said.
With the dissolution of the Big East conference preceding a move to the newly founded American Athletic Conference next year, Eriksen said he was glad the Bulls took the final Big East tournament trophy in his 17th year as Bulls’ coach.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Especially that we beat one of the best lineups in Big East history, with Louisville, Notre Dame and DePaul. Louisville and Notre Dame are both championship caliber teams, so I like to think we’re in the same breath as them.”
The hot streak, winning 37 of their last 41 games, along with the Bulls’ second best pitching staff in the country, based on ERA, clinched their tenth NCAA tournament appearance in the last 17 years.
But Eriksen said he hasn’t let the success get to his head yet.
“Not that I’m superstitious, but my wife wasn’t allowed to come,” he said. “She wasn’t here on Friday when we beat Louisville, and she was on her way over here and one of the player’s parents called her and said ‘Don’t you dare come to the game.’ So she was at home watching on ESPN2, and after the game she sprinted over here.”
After celebrating the win Saturday evening, Eriksen said the Bulls will get back to practicing early this week after they find out where they will play in NCAA Regionals.
“We might have some Motown and dance music playing,” Eriksen said. “That’s what we do at practice, we have fun.”