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Bulls embrace weekend challenge

USF faces several top-ranked teams this weekend, but interim head coach Jessica Moore thinks her team is up for it. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

USF softball faces a daunting task starting Thursday.

The Bulls (0-4) begin the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational (Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater | Times: vary | TV: ESPN3) against No. 16 Oklahoma State. If that wasn’t already a big enough challenge, USF goes on to play four more ranked opponents over the weekend.

The Bulls play No. 9 Alabama, No. 17 Texas Tech, No. 15 Georgia and last year’s national champs, No. 3 UCLA, all in the span of four days.

But there shouldn’t be any clear-cut winners.

“Every day, anyone is beatable,” interim head coach Jessica Moore said.

In terms of team quality, USF is right up there with the rest of them, according to infielder Bethaney Keen.

“I’m just excited to get back out there competing with mostly top-25 contenders,” she said. “We’re right there with them.”

Despite the gauntlet of facing five top-20 teams the second weekend of play, it’s a test that some players are embracing.

“Growing up, you always watch those teams on TV, and the fact that we get to play them — I want to beat them so bad,” infielder Madison Epperson said. “We just want to show them we’re not some other team. We’re here to prove something.”

It’ll be no walk in the park, however.

Besides the opposing teams’ ranked statuses, they have top-notch hitting and pitching. Georgia and UCLA both rank high nationally in team batting average and ERA.

The Bulldogs rank fifth in batting average (.411) and are tied for 11th in ERA (.81). The Bruins are ranked fourth in batting average (.423) and 16th in ERA (1.00). UCLA is also scoring 10 runs on average.

Individual performers also pose a threat. The Bulls will go up against some of the top-performing pitchers in the nation.

Oklahoma State pitcher Kelly Maxwell threw a perfect game in a 21-0 win over Florida A&M on Saturday. Texas Tech’s Erin Edmoundson boasts an ERA of 0.00 through 17 innings.

USF will also face some potential trouble at the plate from players who can get on base and who have heavy bats.

Georgia infielder Jordan Doggett is batting .667 in nine at-bats. UCLA outfielder Aaliyah Jordan is batting .583 and has an on-base percentage of .737. She has seven hits and six RBI in 12 at-bats.

UCLA, a team that may have a target on its back as defending champs, will not have its ace Rachel Garcia and its utility hitter Madilyn “Bubba” Nickles, who are both redshirting to play with Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

The Bruins haven’t felt the effects, as they’ve started the season 6-0.

With a chance at finally getting in the win column, the Bulls are hungry to perform well and could pose a threat to the top teams in the nation, according to Moore.

“I think it’s tough to play teams that are a little bit beat up. Sometimes they might come out like a wounded animal ready to go,” Moore said. “I think we’re one of those.

“I wouldn’t particularly want to play us right now because you don’t know what you’re going to face.”