Allowing just one hit to Florida on Sunday afternoon wasn’t enough for USF to make it out of Gainesville with its season alive.
In perhaps the strangest loss for USF this season, Bulls junior Sara Nevins, along with a brief appearance by senior Lindsey Richardson, pitched a no-hitter until the seventh inning.
But it didn’t matter.
Six walks by Nevins, including a walk and a hit-batter with the bases loaded in the fourth inning cost USF the only two runs in its 2-0 loss.
USF outhit the Gators, squeezing three hits out of Florida ace Hannah Rogers, who was otherwise flawless and allowed zero walks, but it wasn’t enough.
“We could have been here until 5 o’clock playing this one game. That is how much those two pitchers were on today,” USF coach Ken Eriksen said. “It just so happened that we broke a little bit with thecontrol situation. You can’t catch the walks. We gave them some free passes, but you have to give them the credit. Their batters know the strike zone.”
The Bulls bounced back from an 11-1 loss to Florida on Saturday afternoon to defeat Georgia Southern later that evening for another shot at Florida, and the Bulls would have needed two victories on Sunday to advance to Super Regionals.
When Nevins, the Big East Pitcher of the Year, wasn’t given the offensive support needed in the biggest game of the season, No. 22 USF was sent home by No. 2 Florida a year after winning the Gainesville Regional.
Over the weekend, USF batters seldom found open grass in the outfield, instead relying on infield singles to score just four runs in four games.
After a midseason power surge in which USF averaged at least one home run per game, the Bulls couldn’t put a ball over the fence in their last nine games.
As a result, the end of the Bulls’ season was similar to the struggles in the first month of the season, with a lack of offensive production causing the Bulls to barely make it to Sunday’s finale.
Amid offensive struggles and the season coming to an end, the constant force over the last two years for Eriksen’s Bulls has been the pitching staff.
Nevins and Richardson became the first pitching duo in USF history to each have over 200 strikeouts in one season.
“These two young ladies have made my life very easy over the last three years,” Eriksen said. “There are not many pitchers who come through a program, and in one year both of them exceed 200 strikeouts, with earned run averages below 1.20. They have probably saved me a bunch of gray hairs over the years.”
Richardson, a team leader and graduated senior, pitched 10 shutout innings against Georgia Southern on Friday and Saturday, with 19 strikeouts and one walk.
She re-entered the game on Saturday evening with the bases loaded in the ninth inning after the Bulls took a2-1 lead over Georgia Southern, and retired three batters to extend her college career and USF’s season one more day.
“I’m a senior, so I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking ‘this cannot be it.’ I mean it went through my head, but just for a second,” Richardson said. “I kind of made a deal with God that this is not how I’m going out. This is not going to be it for me. I was pretty confident in everybody behind me. I just did my job.”
Earlier that day, things started well for USF against the Gators, as it captured a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
But the sweet start quickly turned sour for the Bulls when Florida hammered Nevins’ pitching like no other team has this season.
The Gators scored 11 runs in the first three innings, led by sophomore slugger Lauren Haeger, who knocked in seven runs with a home run and a double.
It was the first time this season that the Bulls lost after taking a lead in the first inning (18-1) and just the fourth loss after taking the lead first (33-4).
Though the Bulls went 0-4 against the Gators this year, they went 2-1 against them last year before USF’s first ever World Series appearance.
Eriksen said there’s work to do before competing with Florida on a yearly basis.
“The pitching staff is very deep,” he said. “That is what you aspire for. There is a model to build a program after and we are on the same path as that right now.
They just happen to be a couple of years ahead of us, which is phenomenal in respect of where they are. I look forward to seeing them in the postseason. They are a very exciting team.”
USF returns most of its roster next year with only four seniors graduating.
Aside from Richardson and fellow senior Kenshyra Jackson, every USF regular starter and the pitching staff, led by Nevins, will return.
“I will be back in the office tomorrow making out the lineups for game one next year,” Eriksen said.