TAMPA — So much for sneaking into another season.
The University of South Florida softball program – a Women’s College World Series qualifier in 2012 and a conference champion last season – will learn about its strength and versatility.
The Bulls, No. 23 in the ESPN/USA Today preseason rankings, open at 6 p.m. Thursday against the No. 3 Florida Gators in the USF-Wilson DeMarini Tournament.
Saturday, USF faces No. 4 Michigan.
On Feb. 15, top-ranked Tennessee visits USF.
“I’ve got to talk to the guy who makes the schedule because that guy right now is a little happy,’’ said USF coach Ken Eriksen, smiling.
Eriksen can have that meeting by looking in the mirror. A challenging early schedule — Eriksen would have it no other way.
“I don’t think there’s anything better than playing the best competition early to get you ready for the postseason,’’ Eriksen said. “If we see the best pitching early on, there’s nothing we haven’t seen later on. That has been the M.O. of this team the last 15, 16 years. You play the best you can and you play it as early as you can.’’
Truthfully, the Bulls don’t have to take a back seat to anyone nationally.
Senior left-hander Sara Nevins, a two-time All-American who was on last summer’s USA National Team, leads a five-deep pitching staff that might be the best Eriksen has ever assembled.
The infield is paced by National Team member Kourtney Salvarola at shortstop and senior Stephanie Medina at first base. The outfield is led by Ashli Goff, the most notable player in a roster filled with speed.
The Bulls have the highest goals – a championship in the American Athletic Conference and a return to Oklahoma City are realistic ambitions – but Eriksen doesn’t want to think that far ahead.
The next few weeks are enough of a challenge.
“We’re really excited about our schedule, but at the same time, they are just another game to play,’’ Medina said. “Coach Eriksen always talks about whether we’re playing against the No. 1-ranked team, the No. 28-ranked team or whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s a group of nine girls on a field playing against another group of nine girls on the field. We’ve got to come out and play the way we practice.’’
For Eriksen, especially early on, the process trumps the on-field results.
“I’ve never told our team you have to go out and win,” Eriksen said. “We have to play the game the right way. If we do that, we’re going to end up in the right spot. You follow the process, the process irons itself out and you become a little more defined.’’
By any measure, though, USF should be defined by pitching.
Nevins led the Bulls last season in victories (26) and strikeouts (275), while also breaking the program’s career strikeout mark of Monica Triner, a USF Hall of Famer who is Eriksen’s assistant. For all her accomplishments, though, Nevins seems oblivious to her national reputation.
“Sara doesn’t talk about anything (about herself),’’ Goff said. “It’s nice that she’s so humble. She doesn’t have to say anything. We know all her awards and how good she is.”
Nevins (1.30 career ERA) is complemented by junior right-hander Sam Greiner (14-5, 1.66 ERA in two USF seasons); junior-college transfer Karla Claudio, a member of the Puerto Rican national team; sophomore lefty Erica Nunn (3-2, 2.58) and freshman Susan Wysocki.
“We don’t really have a weak link on that pitching staff,’’ Salvarola said. “Every single one is lights-out.’’
USF could have the best team in school history. For now, though, such a thought is just that – potential.
“It’s always a dream to get to the College World Series and this group knows what it takes to get there,’’ Eriksen said. “They have the experience and the confidence. Now we have a lot of challenges right out of the gate. Now it’s time to get out there and do it.’’