Passing the torch

Ken Eriksen and Team USA pose with USF softball for a group picture Tuesday night. Eriksen is taking a leave from USF to lead the U.S. in the 2020 Olympics. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

It’s not exactly a surprise at this point.

Longtime USF softball coach Ken Eriksen is taking a leave of absence from the program in order to lead Team USA in the Summer Olympics in what will be the sport’s first appearance in the Olympics in 12 years.

Actually, Eriksen has officially been on leave since October, but he’s still been around the Lee Roy Selmon Athletics Center, offering wisdom and life advice for those who stop by — though not actually coaching, as he’s prohibited from doing that for USF while working with Team USA.

But all that is about to change. Team USA is embarking on its Stand Beside Her Tour as it tunes up for the Tokyo Games.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the tour began Tuesday night at a place Eriksen knows so well — USF, where Team USA defeated the Bulls 3-0 in front of a crowd of 1,267 at the 750-seat USF Softball Stadium.

“It had to be special to do it against my alma mater,” Eriksen said. “You take a look at the last 30-how many years. I’ve never gone any place else. I played ball here.

“And then, to be here, in front of this town — Tampa — with the United States Olympic team — which, imagine I’m coaching it, which is crazy in itself. And then to have the kickoff of the tour be in Tampa, against the Bulls — I’m in heaven right now.”

Having Eriksen in the opposing dugout was also a fitting way for interim head coach Jessica Moore to kick off her season as leader of the Bulls.

“It was great having Ken on the other side,” Moore said. “We’re obviously super tight in this program, and so it seemed pretty fitting to start this whole thing out with Ken in the other head coach’s box.”

Even as the torch was proverbially handed off Tuesday night, the message remains the same, whether it’s Eriksen or Moore in charge.

“Just stick with Jess and [assistant coach] Tommy [Santiago],” Eriksen said. “We eat breakfast, we eat lunch, we eat dinner together all the time. So it’s the same philosophy. It’s just coming from a different megaphone, but it’s the same philosophy, and if you stick to it, you’ve got a great chance to win.”

While Moore will be in charge in 2020, the Bulls know Eriksen will always be watching, even if he’s halfway across the world.

Eriksen even plans on being at the AAC regular-season championship ring ceremony Thursday before USF opens its season against Illinois State (3:30 p.m. | Radio: Bulls Unlimited), according to junior infielder Bethaney Keen.

“He’s honestly trying his best to be here when he can,” Keen said, “and he’s going to be our biggest supporter from afar too. And we’re going to be his biggest supporter as well.

“He’s going to always be watching. He’s probably going to try to be a coach from afar where he’s like, ‘Oh, come on. You should have swung at that one.’ But he really can’t coach us.”

Moore, who has worked with Eriksen at USF since 2015, obviously has some big shoes to fill — even if it’s only temporarily. After all, Eriksen is the winningest coach in USF Athletics history (975 wins).

But the Bulls have embraced Moore in her new role.

“I think she does a really good job connecting with us, especially for how short of a time she’s been our head coach,” junior pitcher Georgina Corrick said. “She’s really, really done a phenomenal job of stepping up to the occasion and really filling some very large shoes.”

That said, they obviously want Eriksen back at USF next year, so, while it was an emotional night, there wasn’t a whole lot Corrick needed to hear from him after Tuesday’s exhibition.

“He did his ‘fly eagle fly,’” Corrick said, “so I think that was kind of his, ‘Farewell my little ducklings. I’m letting you guys go.’ Him passing us over to Coach Jess, I think was — I hope it was difficult for him. 

“We’re really excited that he’s been a part of the program and that hopefully he’ll return, so I think he doesn’t really need to say too many parting words because he’s hopefully going to find his way back to us.”