The USF softball team will not travel far to begin its journey in the 2021 NCAA tournament, as it secured the No. 4 seed in the Gainesville Regional, according to an NCAA announcement Sunday.
If the Bulls (29-17, 16-7 AAC) want to win their regional and make a deep run into the postseason, they will first have to take down some formidable opponents. Aside from USF, the Gainesville Regional boasts nationally ranked No. 4 UF (42-9, 19-5 SEC) as the region’s top seed, followed by Baylor (27-21, 8-9 Big 12) and South Alabama (30-19, 13-9 Sun Belt), the two and three seeds, respectively.
Despite the tough task that lies ahead, coach Ken Eriksen was pleased the selection committee elected to include the Bulls in this year’s tournament, citing the strength of both his team and the AAC as a whole. USF is one of three representatives the conference is sending to the tournament, including UCF and Wichita State.
“I’m glad to see the NCAA committee took our numbers on paper and our conference’s powerful RPI into consideration,” Eriksen said. “To be able to play up the road from Tampa and give our fans the opportunity to cheer us on is a great opportunity.”
The regional is constructed in a double-elimination format. Being the No. 4 seed, USF is scheduled to open the tournament against UF.
The Gators are an all-too-familiar foe for the Bulls, as the teams played each other four times this season, with UF sweeping the series and outscoring USF 32-5 over that stretch.
In their final matchup of the regular season, however, the Bulls kept it close with the Gators, narrowly losing 2-1 after UF scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the fifth inning.
The Gators’ offensive firepower is headlined by junior infielder Charla Echols who leads the team in both batting average (.384) and homeruns (14). She had 53 RBIs and scored 37 runs.
In addition to Echols, senior infielder Hannah Adams also posted an impressive statline through 51 games, boasting a .379 batting average to go along with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs.
Echols and Adams combined for 13 hits and 14 RBIs in the four games against the Bulls this season. Taming this duo will likely play an integral part in USF’s success at upsetting the regional top seed.
Junior pitcher Elizabeth Hightower is the team’s ace. The righty has a 1.64 ERA on the season and has started in 24 of her 32 appearances, striking out 99 in 140.2 innings. In her two starts against the Bulls this season, Hightower logged 10 innings pitched and allowed four hits and one earned run.
Second in command is senior pitcher Natalie Lugo, who started the other two games against USF this season. Pitching a total of 8.2 innings, Lugo allowed four hits and three earned runs against the Bulls.
Taking down the Gators will not be an easy task, but the Bulls must get it done if they want to avoid a loss in this double-elimination regional.
The Bulls and Gators will kick-start the Gainesville Regional on May 21 at 2 p.m. with the game televised on ESPNU.