USF Softball is back! Last season, the ladies made history as they finished the regular season with a record of 50-14 and earned their first-ever trip to the Women's College World Series. The Bulls jumped out to a 39-5 start, including a 19-game winning streak. They won the Gainesville Regional without dropping a game, then outlasted Hofstra in the Super Regionals.
The Bulls start the season ranked 10th in the ESPN preseason top 25, and 12th in USA Today's poll. Expectations are higher than they've ever been, and several key players from last year's team need to be replaced, including outfielders Gina Kalafas and Janine Richardson, third baseman and human softball vacuum Jessica Mouse, second baseman Alexis Nowell, and catcher Laura Fountain. But with an absolutely loaded roster, USF is in position to make another run at Oklahoma City. Like last year, look for the Bulls to allow precious few runs, use their speed on the base paths to set up scoring opportunities, and bring the runners home with their big bats.
Without question, the strength of this team is the pitching staff, led by junior ace Sara Nevins, who as you might remember is a boss. In 2012, Nevins amassed a 31-8 record with a 1.12 ERA, striking out 336 batters in 256 innings and allowing opponents to hit just .184 against her. She threw three no-hitters, including back-to-back no-nos and a perfect game. Coach Eriksen has stated the best is yet to come for the junior ace as she continues to develop her off-speed pitches, which is a scary thought for opposing hitters. She will once again anchor the staff, but if anything, this year's staff may be even better than last year's.
Sophomore Sam Greiner was impressive during her freshman season. She was USF's opening day starter last year, and she finished with a 10-4 record (plus two saves), a 1.58 ERA, 64 strikeouts In 97.1 innings, and an opponent batting average of .203. If her freshman season was any indication, it will only get better for Greiner, and if she can handle more innings to take some pressure off Nevins, that will help up and down the pitching staff.
Senior Lindsey Richardson also pitched very well last season, amassing a record of 9-2 while finishing 2012 with a 1.32 ERA. She pitched a total of 85 innings, allowing 57 hits, walking 31 batters and struck out 112 (allowed opponents to hit just .185 against her). Richardson was invaluable in the grueling three-game Super Regional against Hofstra. She's a veteran pitcher that can handle any situation Coach Eriksen calls her to take on, whether starting or coming out of the bullpen.
The newest member of the staff is freshman Erica Nunn, an ESPN All-American and the Class 4A player of the year in North Carolina. Nunn, a talented left-hander, will get her chances in the circle right away, but she's also a powerful weapon on offense who can play in the outfield when she isn't pitching. Nunn will give Eriksen (who knows his way around the rule book as well as anyone in the game) some extra flexibility during games.
While Nevins is the ace and workhorse of the staff, Greiner and Richardson have proven their mettle against the best teams in the country. This will take some work off Nevins' shoulders and give the Bulls a number of different looks to throw at opponents. With the addition of Nunn to what was already one of the best pitching staffs in college softball, the Bulls will only get stronger in the circle in 2013.
Kenshyra Jackson, who was mainly used as a designated player last season, will take over for Jessica Mouse at third base. Jackson was one of USF's most effective hitters last year with a .288 average, 37 runs batted in, five home runs, and an on-base percentage of .401. Jackson also has a powerful arm, and although she was used sparingly in the field last year, Eriksen expects her to be able to fill in nicely. Sophomore Nicolette Levine, a Florida State transfer, and JUCO transfer Dani Wayt may also see time at third.
Replacing Alexis Nowell at second base will be Monica Santos. Despite being new to the team, Santos is a member of the Puerto Rico national team, and in addition to her international experience, Santos should be valuable at the plate as well. Wayt, sophomore Sydney Dinelli, and junior Ilaura Reeves (of the always-entertaining iTalk with Ilaura video series) are also options for Eriksen at second base.
Junior Stephanie Medina returns at first base following a monster 2012 campaign where she hit .282, tied for the team lead with seven home runs, drove in 31 runs, and also led the team with 25 walks. (She's like Carlos Pena, if Carlos Pena had hit better.) She also has a sure-handed glove and locks down the right side of the infield. Behind her is freshman Morgan Litchfield, whose power could get her some designated player time, and sophomore Meagan Leddy is another option.
At shortstop the gold glove of junior Kourtney Salvarola. Salvarola batted .324 last season with 12 doubles and 32 RBIs, and she had a fielding percentage of .932. Her arm and defensive ability helps the Bulls be strong up the middle on defense.
At catcher, freshman Lee Ann Spivey will try to come in and fill the shoes of Laura Fountain, who anchored the defense and handled the pitching staff last season. Spivey, who committed to USF way back in 2010, had a high school career batting average of .525, led Flagler Palm Coast's conference in home runs three times, and was named to the Class 8A all-state team in 2012. Behind her is senior Stormi Grzybek, who pinch-hit a number of times last season and hit a grand slam against Rutgers, and junior Brittany Garvey, who started 11 games at catcher in 2011. Junior Kaitlyn Santo, who appeared in 25 games last year, is recovering from an offseason car accident and should be available by the end of this month.
The Bulls will have to replace two key players from last year's squad, leadoff hitter Gina Kafalas and power hitting centerfielder Janine Richardson. Taking over in center field will be sophomore D'Anna Devine, who batted .269 last season and could move to the infield if needed. In left field, Eriksen could put Erica Nunn here to get her bat into the game more often, or Ashli Goff could shift back to her original position. In right field, senior Stephanie Juergens, sophomore Allie Patierno, Courtney Goff, or Spivey (strong arm) could take over and help add speed and coverage in the outfield.
USF-Wilson DeMarini Opening Day Tournament
Once again the Bulls will have a long stretch of local games and tournaments to start the season, and the DeMarini Opening Day Tournament kicks it all off.
After Marshall plays Michigan to start the tournament, USF faces the Thundering Herd at 2:30pm. Marshall went 36-21 last season, and senior pitcher Andi Williamson will be a challenge. Williamson went 25-13 last year with a 1.50 ERA and struck out 288 batters in 238 innings. She did issue 113 walks and allow 13 homers, so there will be opportunities for hte Bulls to break through. On offense, Marshall is led by senior outfielder Ashley Gue, who batted .325 last season, scoring 30 runs and stealing 32 bases. Senior first baseman Alysia Hively hit .282 last season with 6 home runs and 28 RBIs, while another senior, third baseman Jazmine Valle hit .280 with 10 home runs, 10 doubles, and 44 RBI.
The main test of the Opening Day Tournament comes on Saturday at 4:00 when the Bulls take on Michigan. The Wolverines went 42-15 last year and reached the Super Regional round, where they lost to eventual national champion Alabama. It's a rematch of last year's meeting in this same tournament, where USF won 2-0. Michigan came into that game ranked 16th in the country, and they're in the polls again this year, checking in at #13 in the ESPN preseason poll and #15 in the USA Today rankings.
Michigan is led by their ace sophomore pitcher Haylie Wagner, who went 32-7 last season with a 1.53 ERA. Wagner pitched 252 innings and let the defense do some of the work for her, allowing 192 hits while striking out 159, but she also allowed just 52 walks. On offense, Big Blue will have to replace several of their top hitters, including Amanda Chidestes, who hit 10 home runs last season. Sophomore Sara Driesenga batted .340 with six homers and 21 RBIs, and also pitched 124 innings last year. Junior outfielder Nicole Sappingfield hit .317 with a home run last year, and fellow junior outfielder Lyndsay Doyle batted .295.
Right after the USF-Michigan game ends, the Bulls will stay on the field and face Samford. The Bulldogs struggled mightily last season, going 14-42 and only winning four out of 21 games on the road. But they do have some offensive firepower, starting with sophomore catcher Madison Dickey, who batted .356 with seven home runs and 28 RBI. Junior infielder Julianne Surane hit .340, and senior catcher Alex Adams batted .323, adding five home runs and 28 RBI.
USF's final game in the tournament is against Florida Atlantic on Sunday at 1:30. The Owls also had a rough 2012 season, finishing 15-39. Senior first baseman Stephanie Call led the offense with a .325 average, six home runs, and 24 RBI, and she also pitched 57 2/3 innings. Although senior pitcher Taylor Fawbush was 6-17 last season and finished with a 4.38 ERA, she did hit .308 and could cause problems at the plate.
Overall, this is a good early measuring stick for the Bulls. While USF shouldn't have much trouble with Samford or FAU, their two toughest games come first. Marshall's starting pitching will pose a challenge right out of the game, and in the weekend's marquee matchup, it would be foolish to overlook a Michigan program that's been to nine Women's College World Series. A 3-1 or 4-0 showing in this tournament would be a great way to start the season.