Hard from the start

Seniors Kristen Wyckoff (left) and Juli Weber (right), along with USF softball coach Ken Eriksen (middle), field questions during their annual preseason media day. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

There’s no such thing as a fluff game for USF softball coach Ken Eriksen.

There’s no gradual warm up in competition or easy opponents to get the team’s feet wet.

It’s full throttle from the start and has been since Eriksen took over 21 years ago.

“I don’t know any different,” Erisken said.

USF has consistently opened up its schedule with high-caliber teams such as (rank) Michigan (Saturday), Florida (Sunday), and Auburn (March 17).

In Eriksen’s eyes, the only way to prepare for the postseason is to be thrown in early.

“The thing with us is that we start out with one heck of a schedule and it continues throughout the whole year,” Eriksen said. “We’re not just preparing for conference (play), we’re preparing for national championships.”

The postseason is constantly on Eriksen’s mind and that is the way he’s prepared his teams throughout his tenure at USF.

“It’s the wins against those quality opponents and the preparation for facing the best,” Eriksen said. “I don’t think once you get to the end of the year that there’s a pitching staff that’s intimidated us since I’ve been here because we’ve seen the best of the best.”

Despite the desire for an early test, Eriksen’s teams have not fared well in recent years when those top-tier programs enter the gates of the USF Softball Stadium.

USF is 2-17 against ranked teams in the past three seasons with the Bulls being outscored 119-38 in those games. The Bulls’ last win against a ranked team was a 3-2 win over No. 14 Stanford during the 2013-14 season.

With a rigorous opening schedule, most teams rely on the experience of its veteran players. While that may be the case for USF as well, Eriksen also puts a fair amount of trust it his young talent.

 On this year’s roster, freshman outnumber the seniors nearly 2-to-1.

It’s something the upperclassmen have taken notice of and are honing in on to make sure the young talent can be leaned upon as the season progresses.

“I just try and teach them what I’ve learned in my three years here,” senior infielder Kristen Wyckoff said. “I just try and get them to realize that it’s ok to ask questions and tell someone that’s older than you that they’re doing something wrong.

“I don’t want them to be classified as a ‘freshman.’ We’re all one team … it’s important to get them to realize that just because they’re a freshman (doesn’t mean) they can’t do something.”

Putting ranking, talent and age aside, when it comes to these high-profile games, Eriksen’s old mantra stays true: “whoever shows up to play that day has a great chance to win.”

“Maybe as a freshman you go out there and say, ‘Wow, I just watched that team on TV two months ago when I was graduating,’” Eriksen said. “Now as a junior and senior, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we got Michigan and Florida.’

“It builds a callous on fear. It builds a callous on then unknown when you play teams like that day in and day out and that’s why we do it.”