The crack of the bat was the only sound heard from freshman outfielder Astin Donovan after hitting a liner into the gap in an early season game against Portland State.
“I saw the pitch coming right down the middle,” Donovan said. “After the ball fell in a gap I thought I was going to get a triple at most but coach (Eriksen) just kept waving me home, so I ran as fast as I could to reach home plate.”
Before she could even catch her breath, Donovan was sliding into home plate for an inside-the-park home run — the first home run of her USF career.
With so many collegiate athletes looking to make a name for themselves, Donovan is simply focused on discovering her place in a new system.
Coming from Mercy High School in Guilford, Connecticut, Donovan was highly recruited by her senior season. She was one of the state’s most prolific shortstops and was batting .513 with 34 runs and 35 RBIs in her senior year, accompanied by spectacular infield play.
USF head coach Ken Eriksen said he recalled watching Donovan on film and thinking there was a certain spark to her game he had not seen in some time.
“She was such a pure athlete that I thought had limitless potential,” he said. “As a coach you try to find out what players are coachable, including their natural assets. She had speed, in-game awareness and tremendous focus.”
Eriksen had an extra incentive for Donovan that no other school in the country could offer her — a chance to play on the same team as her older sister.
Amber Donovan agreed to transfer to USF from Liberty University to get playing time on a competitive Division I squad while Astin played in her high school senior season. Amber’s sophomore season at Liberty University was her best — the junior posted a .296 batting average with eight home runs and 27 RBIs.
After a debilitating hip injury sidelined Amber in her first season at USF, she found herself calling home and recruiting Astin to join her in Tampa. With a solid team in place and a winning head coach, the decision was not too hard for Astin to make.
Despite Astin’s achievements, coach Eriksen wanted to transition this young, new talent from the infield to the outfield. Even though she had never played the position, Astin knew she was up for the challenge.
“High school is a slower game,” Donovan said. “You come to college and even though the games take two and a half hours, the game itself has a lot quicker pace. Going to the outfield has been a lot of fun because I get to chase down balls in gaps and dive whenever I feel it’s necessary.”
Despite her impressive .381 batting average with 22 runs and 16 RBIs so far this season, Eriksen said he feels a crucial part of her development is being patient at the plate and slowing down the game whenever she can to better read the defense. Off the field, Eriksen wants Astin to have fun and understand there are going to be high and low points.
“I think she’s at a very mature point as a freshman, far beyond what I’ve seen in the past from a lot of players,” he said. “She’s giving herself a very good opportunity thanks to the mature approach she’s had so far.”
Coach Eriksen is not new to coaching siblings, like when twins and former Bulls Courtney and Ashli Goff played on the team from 2010 to 2014. The difference with the Donovan sisters is they’re two years apart.
“They may argue with each other, but if you fight with one of them the other is going to be right behind, so it’s a nice loyalty situation that’s developed between the two,” Eriksen said.
Astin attributes a lot of her own success to the sisterly bond that has only gotten stronger since joining Amber at USF. On the field, the sisters like to stay serious, but off the field they poke fun at each other and crack jokes any chance they get. In addition to giving her tips in practice, Amber also helps Astin with advice on professors or time management to help her transition into the college
“It’s pretty surreal because it’s comforting to know that if I’m having a bad day or just need something, I know that she’s there for me on and off the field,” Astin said. “We’re each other’s best friends and we’re completely comfortable around each other knowing we can talk about anything and everything.”
Not being able to play at her highest level often upsets Amber, but Astin helps keep her calm and remind her of the progress she has made. Amber said the chance to play with her younger sister has turned out to be unlike anything she thought she would ever experience.
“Our relationship is very strong,” Amber said. “It’s very honest with everything softball-wise or just life in general. I feel like as long as our relationship stays the way it is it’ll only continue to get stronger as time goes on.”
The Donovan sisters and the rest of the USF softball team will take on Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers on Wednesday at 6 p.m.