Fresh off the first Big East softball championship in school history, the No. 22 Bulls head to Gainesville this weekend for opening round play of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
For USF (43-14), the road to the World Series goes through Gainesville and the Florida Gators for the second year in a row.
The No. 2 Florida Gators (52-7) are hosts of a four-team, double-elimination regional for the 11th consecutive season, after taking first place in the SEC regular season standings and winning the SEC Tournament.
Both accomplishments are a testament to the ability of the Gators, as the SEC is widely believed to be the best conference in collegiate softball, with seven teams currently ranked in the Top 16. The next highest total is the Pac-12 with three teams in the Top 16.
USF will battle Florida, Hampton and Georgia Southern at the Gainesville regional.
USF has not played Hampton, but is 5-0 all-time against Georgia Southern and 14-33 against Florida, including a 0-2 mark against the Gators this year, with a 3-1 loss on Feb. 27 and a 9-1 loss on April 10.
“We put the losses behind us,” Bulls freshman second baseman Monica Santos said on April 13. “But I’m confident that if we see them again this year, we’ll beat them.”
And without Santos’ single in a 10th-inning win against Notre Dame in the Big East Championship last weekend, the Bulls might not have had such an opportunity.
There are a few keys for the Bulls if they hope to have success this weekend and escape Florida with their season still in progress.
Jumping out to an early lead will be paramount towards victory for the Bulls, especially against the high-powered Gators, who average over six runs per game.
This season, USF is 18-0 when scoring in the first inning and 33-3 in games where they score first.
Taking an early lead plays into the Bulls’ hands so well because their pitching staff rarely relinquishes a lead, going 30-2 this season when leading after the fifth inning, thanks to its 1.23 team ERA, which is second in the nation.
For the second year in a row,USF is in the Top 5 in team ERA at No. 2, led by junior left-hander Sara Nevins, who pitched 22 2/3 shutout innings in the Big East Tournament last weekend.
Nevins went 2-1 against the Top 10-ranked Gators last season, including a shutout victory in the Gainesville regional to lead the Bulls to the Super Regionals.
The Bulls are one of the hottest teams in the country, after winning 34 of their last 38 games.
Only Hofstra has a better record in the last 38 games (35-3), and including the Bulls Big East championship, that mark is at 37 wins out of the last 41 games.
USF will first face Georgia Southern in the double-elimination regional on Friday at 3:30 p.m., and its next game will be Saturday. The regional final will take place Sunday at 4 p.m., with the winner advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals.