The 2022 softball season begins Thursday, and coming off a 31-19 (16-7 AAC) record in 2021, expectations are running high for USF. The team is pushing to improve and take another step toward conference title contention.
Here are some notable storylines regarding the upcoming campaign.
Starting off strong
The Bulls begin their season with a gauntlet of challenges against top programs who are perennial competition in the Women’s College World Series.
Opening weekend kicks off with Illinois State, Kansas City, No. 13 Michigan and No. 5 Florida in the USF Rawlings Invitational from Thursday to Sunday.
Having not won a matchup against Florida since 2012, the Bulls hope to reverse the momentum the Gators have on them.
The following weekend from Feb. 18-20, the Bulls face hefty opposition in Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Auburn and Wisconsin, all part of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational.
There is strategy to USF’s difficult opening schedule. It gives the team an idea of where it stands against other successful programs, according to coach Ken Eriksen.
Starting the season with the challenges these opponents present will set the tone for the rest of USF’s schedule. It’s a chance for the Bulls to prove they are on the same level as the traditionally strong programs in college softball.
Players to watch
The Bulls have had talent on the team for years, such as senior pitcher Georgina Corrick. Now in her fifth year at USF, she has been the team’s main player in the pitcher’s circle.
“You can see what she did last year, gets into regional finals. She’s strong. She’s the big horse for us,” Eriksen said. “The plan is to do the same thing. Let’s go with Georgina, and then we’ll go the rest of the way and [the team] bought into that.”
Following Corrick in the rotation, transfer pitchers like senior Erin Poepping and redshirt freshman Antoinette Hill have emerged in support, ready to take the reins once Corrick completes her final season.
Poepping came from conference contender East Carolina, where she racked up a handful of individual awards including AAC Pitcher of the Week in 2019.
“What a competitor, and a real big part of our chemistry,” Eriksen said. “She’s kind of a glue factor in respect of, she’s been someplace else.”
USF also convinced Hill to join from Purdue. Although she is still a young player, she has shined in practice, according to Eriksen.
“You’ve got a big horse coming in from Purdue in Antoinette Hill, who I think is going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “She’s got four years of eligibility, came in here this fall and did a phenomenal job.”
An important aspect for the bullpen and any softball pitching staff is the catchers, such as sophomore Josie Foreman, who has been a key part of USF’s success.
“I think if you watched us last year, right around a quarter of the way into the season Josie flat out won the starting position,” Eriksen said.
“Her and George became a great battery together. They learned from each other and it was so cool to watch them and watch this young freshman basically call a game right by herself.”
These key pieces to this team will contribute heavily to a successful season for USF.
Conference heating up
USF’s non-conference opponents are talented, but the AAC landscape has been improving as well, posing a threat to the Bulls’ hopes for conference superiority.
Wichita State, who went 41-13-1 (18-5-1 AAC) claimed the regular-season championship and won the AAC championship tournament in 2021, beating UCF 7-3 in the final.
After falling short in the Norman Regional to No. 1 Oklahoma, the Shockers will look to defend their title. They are currently tabbed as the favorite in the 2022 American Softball Preseason Coaches’ Poll, according to the AAC.
UCF is also poised to battle for the conference crown. The Knights finished their season 41-19-1 (16-7-1 AAC) and defeated USF in the tournament semifinals, eventually reaching the Tallahassee Regional.
The War on I-4 will carry even more weight in 2022 as both teams look to make deeper runs in postseason play than in years past.
USF softball has made consecutive NCAA tournament appearances under Eriksen after not reaching regionals in the previous five seasons. The Bulls are hoping to make it three straight tournament berths, either through an at-large selection or through a conference win.
“This is a grind, it’s a marathon,” Eriksen said. “You’ve got 56 competitions prior to you getting chosen, hopefully. Or you outright win a spot to the NCAA tournament and this game rewards merit.
“Every single day, and in softball, the NCAA, you have to earn your place of where you go.”
Every college softball team’s dream is to make it to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma. To muster past the strong opposition and get to their ideal endpoint, the Bulls must perform in every aspect of the game.
“You don’t overpower good teams, right? You beat them in the trenches,” Eriksen said. “It’s in the execution right now. If we can execute at 100% we got a great opportunity.
“All we’re trying to do is play every pitch well, and execute on every pitch and hopefully, at the end of the day, the scoreboard doesn’t lie.”
USF softball will play its first game of the season Thursday at 5:30 p.m. against Illinois State at the USF Softball Stadium.