OKLAHOMA CITY — The script was written last fall. It was on page 54.
Ken Eriksen knows the page number off the top of his head. He should, he put it there because he believed this team, with the talent South Florida had coming back, could reach the Women’s College World Series.
So, early in the school year, when teams get together for the first time to talk about goals, Erkisen, a veteran coach, had it right there in black and white. At the back of the team manual, he wanted them to know where this squad could be headed if everyone bought into the process the coaching staff laid out.
|SOONERS PLAYING SMALL BALL?|
Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso know s how tough it will be to get around the bases against USF and said the “execution of small ball is going to be so important.”
So, coach, are you saying your team, the one that leads the nation in home runs, won’t be aiming for the outfield bleachers for once?
“Well, I’m not saying we’re not going to swing it,” Gasso said with a chuckle.
“We have to get runners in scoring position. It’s hard. It’s going to be hard to hit home runs off a pitching staff like they have. They don’t give up a lot. We’re not going to count on the home run but more of fundamental offense by putting people in scoring position.”
To date, it’s been a nearly perfect journey simply because his players determined their path to the ultimate goal.
“I don’t think anybody can see the specifics, but I think you have to prepare for the eventualities of what may occur,” Eriksen said. “I think you have to have the talent to aspire to that level. The first day we came into our team get-together, I walked in and said ‘We’re going to do some really good things this year and we have a chance to make some news nationally and make a lot of noise at the end of the year.’ I had no problem in conveying [that] because I was very confident we had an opportunity to compete for a place in the Women’s College World Series.”
That’s a bold prediction, especially for a program that had only been to one Super Regional in history. Yet, Eriksen didn’t hesitate. He knew what it takes to get to Oklahoma City: pitching. It’s the one key a team can’t get to the national championship without. And he knew his Bulls had it.
South Florida set a school record with 19 consecutive wins. It owns 50 victories on the year, the sixth time the Bulls have reached the mark and first since 2006, their only other year advancing past the first weekend of the postseason.
Pitching has been the key for all of it.
The Bulls rank No. 2 in the nation in ERA behind the trio of Sara Nevins, Lindsey Richardson and Sam Greiner. Nevins, only a sophomore, is the ace, accumulating a 31-6 record with a sterling 1.03 ERA while pitching more than double the innings of Richardson (9-2, 1.34) and Greiner (10-4, 1.58).
“As a coach over time, you know when you have the Jims and the Joes and when you don’t. We had the Jims and the Joes, and it doesn’t really matter about Xs and Os at that point,” Eriksen quipped.
He was only partially right. Eriksen has the Xs and Os part down pretty well, too. He should, considering he learned from one of the best. As a collegiate baseball player, Eriksen migrated from the northeastern climate in his native New York to Tampa where he played for Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts, who, with all-region performer Eriksen in the outfield, helped South Florida to its first NCAA appearance.
He also played at the elite level, being named to the 1992 All-World Team and winning eight ASA men’s softball national titles. Eriksen has translated that to the women’s game as well, serving as the U.S. National Team head coach after being an assistant on the 2004 Olympic gold-medal team.
Eriksen’s point is well-taken, though. You need talent before you can have the confidence to ask a team to believe it achieve at the highest level. He knew Nevins could give USF everything it needs in that category, and she has by outdueling some of the top pitchers in the nation all year, especially in the postseason.
In the regional final, Nevins took down the state’s big dog, beating Florida on its home field as she allowed just five hits while punching out 12 in a shutout. The Gators’ big gun, Hannah Rogers, allowed only four hits, but the Bulls were able to push across the crucial run and set up a home Super Regional.
Playing host to postseason games for the first time, the Bulls were walking into uncharted territory against another upstart with a star pitcher. Hofstra became the darkhorse that could, riding Olivia Galati’s back through the Los Angeles Regional and within a game of the WCWS after beating the Bulls in 11 innings in Game 1. Nevins gave up seven hits in that contest, but then allowed just six in 10.2 innings in the next two games combined, giving USF its first WCWS berth.
Nevins will tell you she’s emotionless. She just takes each batter, each pitch really, as it comes and doesn’t let the rest of the background noise of the game bother her.
Her catcher, Laura Fountain, says that’s close, but there may be a better word. Nevins has plenty of emotion; she just won’t show it to those outside the team.
“I don’t know the best word to describe it, but she’s quietly confident,” Fountain said. “That’s probably the best way that she knows what she has to do. She’s very aware of it, she just won’t ever tell anybody. She just has that quiet command.”
Nevins also knows how much her command in the circle has continued to grow this season. It’s developed with the pressure, with the confidence from winning and with time. It was expected by Eriksen, even if her skyrocket’s trajectory is a couple years ahead of where he thought she’d be at this point.
|TAKING HER OWN MEDICINE|
As a lefty pitcher, Keilani Ricketts feels like she has an advantage against hitters, especially with her speed and ability to locate the ball. But as a batter, she may be her own worst nightmare.
Facing lefties is not what she wants to do on a regular basis, but in the WCWS opener, she will have to take the same treatment she gives batters against USF’s Sara Nevins, another elite-level lefty.
“I always tell people I would not want to face myself because I throw hard and I’m a lefty and [Thursday] we’re facing a lefty who throws hard, so it’s going to be a challenge,” Ricketts said.
“Her freshman year, she was still a thrower, hadn’t developed differentials of speed, differentials of movement. And she has now,” Eriksen said. “She’s matured very, very quickly. Her success has been about this year; she has made batters do things they are not comfortable with.”
Eriksen has made the Bulls comfortable in both their talent level and understanding their roles. He also reminds them that while it’s important, it’s still a game and fun.
To keep the Bulls loose, Eriksen may have to do his Monster Dance on Thursday before facing Oklahoma. As Fountain says with a laugh, he “puts this song on, his crazy dance. And we all know when it’s coming … It’s one of his old-time songs. He’s back in the day.”
They’ll need to be loose as the Sooners are the only team in the nation with a better ERA (1.15) than USF. And OU leads the country in home runs with 95. Definitely a chore, especially when it means the Bulls will be facing national player of the year Keilani Ricketts as both a pitcher and hitter.
It will be like so many other games the past two weeks with pressure situations and where an error, sacrifice bunt and a bloop single could mean the game.
And there’s no one Eriksen would rather have in the circle than Nevins. Like Fountain, he will have none of Nevins’ ‘emotionless’ talk. He knows she is brimming with feelings especially about stepping into charged-up situations like they faced at Florida and then again last weekend when Nevins was called for multiple illegal pitches.
“It’s amazing. Can you imagine a young guy at that age where they feel someone is against them or someone is picking a fight with them, how a young guy could just go, ‘OK’ and just walk away? Nobody could do that,” Eriksen said. “That’s really, really tough. What she did, she didn’t let any of that stuff get to her and the crowd at the University of Florida was just unbelievable and she was just cool as a cat, like ‘What’s the next pitch?’ And that’s been her philosophy personally.
“Yeah, she’s got passion. She puts it at the end of her fingertips.”
The same fingertips that flitted through the team manual to page 54 all throughout the season.