Erica Nunn and Lee Ann Spivey prepare for final season

USF seniors Lee Ann Spivey and Erica Nunn are entering their final year while head coach Ken Eriksen embarks on his 20th season at USF. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

During his tenure with USF softball, coach Ken Eriksen has seen heaps of players come and go through his program. From former player and assistant Monica Triner to recent ace Sara Nevins, Eriksen has groomed many top-tier players.

Sitting at the team’s preseason media day before USF’s season opener against South Carolina, Eriksen knew two of his cornerstone players were starting their last rides.

Catcher Lee Ann Spivey and pitcher Erica Nunn have spent countless hours together over their four-year career. Whether at summer practices, tossing bullpen warmups or clutch bottom of the seventh performances, the duo has built a special relationship.

“When I’m catching for her and calling pitches, we kind of have our own language,” Spivey said of Nunn. “I can just look at her and go ‘alright this is what she wants called right here,’ and I’ll give it. It’s a great relationship to have.”

Nunn and Spivey have started nearly 50 games together. They began their careers as backups, but have grown to become one of the conference’s top pitcher-catcher tandems.

“Spivey is really a comfort blanket behind the plate because I’ve thrown to her for four years,” Nunn said. “It’s nice to have her behind the plate, because she knows what I want to throw and knows where I want to throw it.”

Being on the same page is key. Although consistency has made them who they are today, pushing the limits has helped them evolve.

“Having caught (for) her for four years, I’ve seen her mature as a player and as an individual,” Spivey said. “Just yesterday at practice, I was catching her drop balls and she’s got an insane drop ball on the inside corner, and four years ago she would’ve looked at me and said, ‘I don’t throw a drop ball.’”

USF’s identity was youth and speed last season, with the underclassmen shouldering the offensive load. This year, the Bulls will have a different mantra relying on the experience of Nunn and Spivey.

In four seasons, Spivey has made her name known for her timely and powerful hitting. She led the team in batting average, slugging percentage, RBIs, homeruns and several other categories.

Nunn led the team in wins with a 10-8 record and a 2.73 ERA.

“(Leadership) is seen, it’s not heard,” Eriksen said. “If you’re giving good effort and everyone’s on the same page, I think it lends itself to everybody following each other and motivating each other. 

“I do know that those two at the end of the table over there, if anybody gets out of line, we’d have those two step in and go, ‘hey look, that’s just how we do things here at USF.’”

Their experience will be needed in USF’s opening weekend that will feature No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Michigan.

USF took the Gators to the wire last season, leading 4-2 in the final frame before allowing eight runs in the bottom of the seventh. 

“If you come out this weekend, I don’t think you’ll find an NCAA regional or postseason tournament that will have the type of players and type of teams that we’ll have this weekend,” Eriksen said. “We have possibly six postseason teams in the opening weekend.”

USF will play nine teams that are ranked or receiving votes in USA Today’s preseason poll. Its schedule includes rematches against Michigan, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee, all of whom USF lost to in 2015.

But, it’s a way for USF to judge itself early on.

“It’s a great way for us to come out and show people that we’re here to play ball,” Spivey said. “Who cares what their name is on their chests? If we’re putting across more runs and playing harder than they are, we’re going to win.”

Spivey needs just 13 homeruns to break the all-time mark held by Kourtney Salvarola (36). But that is far beyond her vision for her final year.

“As soon as you start looking at stats — I feel like it’s a head game — you’re not really playing for the team, you’re playing for yourself,” Spivey said of the milestone. “I think it’s really important to accomplish any goal; everyone has to be on the same page. 

“You have to be selfless about the person next to you. If it comes to the last at bat of the season and I’m thinking, ‘Hey I need one more homerun to break the record,’ but what I really need to put down is a squeeze, then I’m going to put down the squeeze.”

Both Spivey and Nunn play for their team, putting individual accolades aside. 

The team’s goal for this year is to make it far beyond where they fell last season. USF missed the postseason by one vote, claiming the spot of the first team out. 

“Without the 22 parts, we’re not going anywhere,” Eriksen said. “Everyone has to play at their top level for us to be a very competitive team that can go very deep in the postseason.”

USF will take on South Carolina at the USF Softball Complex on Friday at 2:15 p.m.