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A look at USF softball’s six opponents to open 2024 season

The Bulls pictured in their season-opening win against Michigan last year. They will face them again on Feb. 9 USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

USF softball will play six games in four days to open the 2024 season starting on Thursday. 

As rigorous as the schedule might look, Bulls coach Ken Eriksen said he is confident in their depth to withstand the season’s grind.  

“I think it’s important to see that as early as possible,” Eriksen said in a press conference last Thursday. “So you can set your benchmarks and understand what you have to work on early enough in the season…before the postseason.”

Related: USF softball has one thing on its mind — returning to NCAA Regionals 

Here’s a look at the opponents USF will face in its opening weekend.

Illinois State – Feb. 8

The Bulls open the season with a double-header on Thursday. The first matchup is against Illinois State.

USF has historically done well against ISU. The Bulls are 14-3 all-time against the Redbirds.

Utility player Emme Olsen, the Redbirds’ top batter last season, graduated last year. She batted .345 in 2023.  

The absence of their offensive star could potentially give the Bulls defensively as Illinois State’s primary source of offense is no longer on the team.

Bethune Cookman – Feb. 8

In their second matchup of the day, USF faces Bethune-Cookman. The Wildcats went 19-31 in 2023.

Despite a rather middling season, the Wildcats still have notable talent.  

Their junior pitcher Halyne Gonzalez was named the Southwestern Conference Preseason Pitcher of the Year. Gonzalez appeared in 42 games as a sophomore, including 35 starts in the circle in 2023.

She was second in the SWAC with 15 wins on the year, finishing atop the league with 188 strikeouts.

Junior outfielder Essence Gibbs was also named to the preseason conference second team. She ended the year with a .248 batting average, eight RBIs and 18 runs.

Related: Back to first base: A preview of the 2024 USF softball season

Michigan – Feb. 9

USF will face Michigan, which is currently receiving votes on ESPN.com’s Top 25 poll, on Friday.

The Wolverines will look to get back to their contention status under second-year head coach Bonnie Tholl. They won the Big 10 conference championships in 2019 and 2021.

Michigan returns its entire pitching staff from last season. They combined for a 2.91 earned-run average, 336 strikeouts and a .239 opposing average in 2023. 

The Bulls could win their third straight game against the Wolverines. USF beat Michigan 4-1 in 2022 and 2-1 in its season opener last year.

Florida – Feb. 11

USF faces its first ranked opponent of the season, the No. 17 Florida Gators on Sunday. 

The Gators are perennial College World Series contenders and could prove to be the Bulls’ toughest matchup of the season. UF’s .317 batting average ranked 16th in the nation last year. 

Their two players, redshirt senior infielder Skylar Wallace and junior outfielder Kendra Falby, shouldered most of their offense last season. The duo scored a third of the Gators’ total runs and two-thirds of the program’s stolen bases in 2023.

Wallace was named 2023 SEC Player of the Year and National Fastpitch Coaches Association Player of the Year.

A win on Sunday would break a 26-game losing streak against Florida. The last time the Bulls beat the Gators was in 2012.

Kansas – Feb. 12

The Bulls round out the tournament against Kansas on Monday. 

While the Jayhawks are a Big 12 team, there still is a path to victory for USF.

Last season, Kansas ranked last in its conference in batting average at .243. They also ranked last in fielding percentage at .959.

KU returns 19 student-athletes from the 2023 season, most notably senior catcher Lyric Moore. Moore batted .303 and led the team in hits with 43 last year. 

USF softball opens its season at home on Thursday against Illinois State at 4 p.m. The game will be broadcast on BullsUnlimited Radio.