Bold predictions for USF softball in 2016

Senior Ericka Nunn tossed a no-hitter against Illinois State on Feb. 6 of last season. She returns as USF's top pitcher when USF opens its season against South Carolina on Feb. 12 at 2:15 p.m. at the USF Softball Complex. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Although USF fell short of making the postseason, the 2015 season brought many exciting moments — from senior Erica Nunn’s no-hitter to the Bulls’ midseason 16-game winning streak. Entering his 20th season with the Bulls, coach Ken Eriksen and the USF softball team look to 2016 for more of the same. Here are four bold predictions for the upcoming season.

1. Nunn gets revenge over rival Gators

Everything set up exactly how Erikson had anticipated. Well, other than the fact that his team had a two-run lead on the top team in the country in its opening weekend, but maybe so. With three outs standing between them and arguably the biggest upset in program history, Nunn stepped into the circle, fresh off a no-hitter, to try to put the Gators away. It didn’t go quite as she had planned. USF gave up eight hits in the seventh inning and lost 10-5.

It’s a loss that is bound to stick in a pitcher’s head, but it may be for good reason in this case. In USF’s second weekend of games to open the season, the Gators will once again make the two-hour drive to the USF Softball Complex. This time, Nunn will be ready. Pressure and nerves aside, the senior —who is now USF’s ace after the departure of Sam Greiner and Karla Claudio — will get her chance against the team’s biggest rival. And this time, her experience will get the better of the perennial powerhouse.

2. Spivey passes 2015 RBI mark

Only two people in program history have driven in more runs in than catcher Lee Ann Spivey did in 2015. The senior became the fourth batter to reach the 50-RBI mark at USF, sitting only behind Holly Graves (82, 2014) and Carmela Liwag (53, 2003). Although no one may ever reach Graves’ astronomical mark, Spivey has a prime chance to build off a strong season and beat her career mark. Spivey played a role in 28 percent of USF runs last season and there’s no reason she can’t do it again. As one of the few power hitters on the Eriksen’s squad that excels at moving base runners into scoring position, Spivey should thrive.

3. USF reaches AAC tournament finals

It was an early exit for USF in last year’s AAC tournament — at least earlier than it would’ve liked — losing to UCF’s dominant pitching duo 3-1 in the semifinals. The Knights, who have become the AAC’s top team, lost half of that duo entering 2016. Along with it went Mackenzie Audas’ .95 ERA, which ranked second only to her teammate Shelby Turnier (.87) in the nation. With USF’s returning upperclassmen and a young roster that continues to gain experience, USF will be a threat to the Knights’ crown and will earn, at least, a spot in the finals of the tournament. 

4. Bulls return to NCAAs

USF is three years removed from its last NCAA Tournament appearance — losing 2-1 to FSU in regionals. The glory years of dominant ace Sara Nevins effortlessly tossing complete games and no-hitters with Kourtney Savarola aiding in run support, are long gone. But USF has groomed new weapons and is ready to unleash them. Most of these are underclassmen. Aside from Spivey, who has established herself as USF’s premier hitter, USF boasts a young and strong roster. Of the Bulls' 221 RBIs last season, 91 came from freshmen or sophomores. It’s a young team that has some firepower. A return to postseason play is something Eriksen has been longing for and this may be the year USF gets the job done.

USF’s season kicks off at home on Feb. 12 with a double header against South Carolina and Virginia Tech, beginning at 2:15 p.m.

—Follow on Twitter @JacobHoagUSF