Bulls win two, lose one as they even their record

Redshirt freshman pitcher Payton Dixon recorded a career-high nine strikeouts en route to a victory Monday against Army. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

USF softball evened its record after putting up another two wins in the Bulls Invitational this weekend. The Bulls have now won eight of their last 11 games, bringing their winning percentage back to .500 after starting off the season with a 2-7 record. 

South Florida (10-10) came out on top against USC-Upstate and Army and lost against NIU over the three-game stretch. Although USF’s offensive performance was not at its best, great pitching played a significant role in both victories. 

Here’s how the Bulls performed throughout all three matchups:

USF 2, USC-Upstate 1

In an intense low-scoring pitchers’ duel Saturday, USF softball managed to turn things around and take the upper hand in a walk-off 2-1 win against USC-Upstate (18-2).

USC-Upstate’s offense got off to a quick start with sophomore utility Denver Lauer’s leadoff home run on the third pitch of the game. However, it would be the only run the Spartans conjured up with redshirt freshman pitcher Payton Dixon on the mound. 

Dixon went on to pitch a complete game against USC, striking out seven and only walking one Spartan in the seven innings pitched. She said the leadoff home run served as motivation to do better throughout the game.

“Since it was the first batter and it was a home run hit off me, I was like, ‘I need to get myself together,’ ” Dixon said. “I know my defense is behind me, so I have to trust my movement and hit my spots.”

Offense wasn’t strong for either team, with both squads getting only four hits throughout the game. South Florida didn’t find its momentum until the bottom of the seventh inning, when junior infielder Alyssa Rano entered the game as a pinch hitter and hit a triple to put the tying run in scoring position. 

As senior utility Vivian Ponn stepped up to the plate, she said she knew she had one job to do. 

“As soon as Alyssa got that triple, I knew that we needed to pass the bats and keep them coming. So as soon as she hit that I knew I had to go up there and knock her in for the team rally,” she said. “I’ve been struggling as of late so that was amazing. I will take that all day.”

Ponn did just that, recording an RBI to tie the game. Shortly after, Ponn was crossing home plate as sophomore outfielder Hallie Bryant hit a sac fly to bring her home. 

It was an important win for the Bulls, as they took down a team that had only lost once prior this season.

Coach Ken Eriksen emphasized the significance of the win heading into the second month of the season.

“This is a smart team. They realize that they are playing against some heavyweights and it was not going to be an easy one,” Eriksen said.

“Now, you start looking at what Michigan State is doing out in California, what UIC is doing elsewhere, and they’re going like ‘You know what, we ain’t that bad.’ And so a game like this is just another brick in the building of confidence and a brick in the building of potential runs.”

NIU 6, USF 4

The Bulls were unable to continue their moment on Saturday with a 6-4 loss to the Huskies (6-9) on Sunday.  

NIU had a solid day at the plate, producing six runs on nine hits to put the game out of reach for USF. South Florida’s pitching was inconsistent, as no pitcher was able to log more than three innings of work. All pitchers combined for just three strikeouts over the course of the game.

South Florida’s offense got off to a slow start, as its first hit came in the fifth inning courtesy of freshman catcher Camille Ortiz-Martinez’s double. The Bulls’ four runs were thanks to a three-run shot by redshirt senior outfielder Meghan Sheehan and a solo shot by junior utility Marissa Trivelpiece.

Eriksen said he took responsibility for the loss and praised his team’s work on offense.

“I’ve got to make better decisions as a coach in respect of not stealing when you’re down and getting people thrown out on the basepaths. So I’m going to blame that loss on me,” he said. “We hit some balls hard early on in the game, but I didn’t help the offense at all today.”

The Bulls also struggled to make the plays on defense. Although the team committed only two errors throughout the game, a series of mental errors and misjudgments by the defense ultimately sealed the loss for USF. Eriksen acknowledged the mistakes and he is confident the team will turn things around on Monday’s game.

“I didn’t think they were out there, actually. But it happens, nobody’s perfect and we’re going to have our ups and downs throughout the whole season,” Eriksen said. “Let’s hope they show up tomorrow.”

USF 2, Army 0

A 2-0 shutout win on Monday against the Army Black Knights (5-11) saw USF end the three-game stretch with a victory to bring their record back to 10-10.

Army’s bats were no match for Dixon, as she pitched a complete-game shutout while only surrendering four hits and recording a career-high nine strikeouts.

Dixon said she found her rhythm in the game and stuck with it. 

“My curveball and my changeup were definitely working today,” Dixon said. “I’ve been struggling a little on the outside corner, so I was trying to ladder my pitches there.”

Pitching was a strong factor for both teams. Sophomore pitcher Olivia Farris responded to Dixon’s performance with six innings of her own, in which she struck out two batters and relied on her defense to make the easy plays. The game remained scoreless until the fourth inning, when the Bulls got on the board on an RBI single by Rano. The second run came in the sixth inning on a sacrifice fly by Ortiz-Martinez.

Sheehan credited Farris with keeping the offense at bay.

“She gets on you quick. She throws hard, her stuff moves and she goes up and down, which is tricky because then you can’t commit to one quadrant of the plate,” Sheehan said. “She’s one of those pitchers that keep you on your toes.”

Assistant coach Karla Claudio Rivera compared the game to Sunday’s matchup against NIU. She said she is looking forward to the team keeping the momentum going.

“There was much better energy today than yesterday. We were a little passive coming up against NIU. We just wanted to make adjustments as far as the stuff that we missed yesterday, and I think the girls did a pretty good job being a little more aggressive at the plate today,” Rivera said. 

“Hopefully from here we just can keep going up by making adjustments, making sure our young guys keep learning and see if we can get a little streak going again.”

The Bulls will face UPenn in a doubleheader at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Both games will be broadcast on ESPN+.