With two outs in the bottom of the first inning Friday, freshman Kenya Yancy stepped up to the plate with her team clutching a slim 1-0 lead. The 5-foot-6 outfielder showed her power sending a grand-slam shot over the left center field fence for her first career home run.
This is just a mere snapshot of the success of the freshmen USF softball coach Ken Eriksen has brought in for this season who are making an immediate impact.
USF has had five freshmen appear in at least six of the team’s first 10 games, which amassed 25 runs and 16 RBIs in 75 at bats.
“They really are (doing some great things),” Eriksen said of the young talent. “They’ve really been pushing the envelope with playing time and productivity measurements have been pretty darn good.”
Eriksen said early in the season that he wouldn’t be afraid to start three or four freshmen at a time during the season, and he has stuck to that with 29 freshmen starts in the first two weekends.
“These guys aren’t fearing failure,” Eriksen said. “They’re aware of it, but they’re also responsive and they’ve come back in games to do some great things.”
Eriksen credits the success of the younger crowd to the acceptance from the older girls.
“I’m really proud of the fact that the juniors and seniors have accepted the fact that these guys are part of the team,” Eriksen said. “I think that’s the only way you can be successful and have a positive environment. A lot of credit goes to those upper-class players who make the under-class players feel very comfortable.
“In female sports that’s rare. It’s rare that you have a 22-year-old woman accepting an 18-year-old girl into the program to be able to be productive. We hoping that the philosophy instilled here will carry on.”
With seniors like Veronica Gajownik, D’Anna Devine and Sam Greiner leaving following the season, Eriksen said he still feels pretty good about the next couple of years.
Wherever youth go, mistakes follow. USF has had 16 fielding errors, 16 wild pitches and 38 walks in 2015.
“We can’t give opposing teams the extra opportunities via the errors and walks,” Eriksen said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m a staunch proponent for playing the game without giving them extra opportunities.”
The Bulls had trouble with giving up big offensive innings in their losses against No. 11 Tennessee and Fordham, where USF allowed two eight-run innings.
“We have to make the plays on ground balls so we don’t extend the innings,” Eriksen said. “Anytime your pitching staff gets into the 18-24 pitch range, it doesn’t help.”
Need for speed
Without an abundance of power hitters on the roster, USF has had to be creative with scoring runs, a task it has seen success with, as the team scored nine more runs than any team in the AAC.
The Bulls trade power for speed, and a lot of it.
“They can get the defense to move laterally just by a lead,” Eriksen said. “They just take one step and everybody’s flinching like crazy.”
USF sits second in the conference in doubles (12), first in triples (4) and have more stolen bases than any other AAC team.
The mobility of the team allows them to turn what may be a groundout to some into extra bases.
“You get down to the 7, 8 and 9 rotation in the lineup with (Astin) Donovan and Devine and then (Kristen Wyckoff) in the leadoff,” Eriksen said. “You have to love hitting (in the) 3, 4 and 5 spot because there will be some people on base for us that can make some things happen.”
With hosting some of the nation’s top programs comes standing-room-only crowds and an exciting, loud environment.
“I think anytime you have energy like that in the ballpark that we have, the girls play off of it,” Eriksen said. “I only had to get on the team one time in 10 games saying ‘You’re playing very boring right now; if I had a ticket I’d probably leave.’ Other than that, they’ve been pretty exciting; we just have to keep up that excitement.”
USF has played three opponents in the top 15 and have 13 teams from the 2014 NCAA tournament field on the schedule, meaning big crowds throughout the year for USF.
“I don’t notice it too much during the games, but marketing is happy, the chief financial officer is happy, concessions is happy, so, that’s a couple people off my butt,” Eriksen said in regards to the large crowds. “I just have to put a couple W’s on the board so my wife can be happy.”
USF returns to action Friday in the USF Wilson-Demarini Tournament with games against Auburn at 2:45 p.m. and Marshall at 5 p.m.