The University of South Florida softball team needed one more out for history on Saturday night. In the stands, fans were tense. That's when USF coach Ken Eriksen visited left-hander Sara Nevins on the mound.
Some poker-faced players wondered: Why? Why now?
"I told them, 'I want to get some more TV time,' " Eriksen said, smiling. "Then I said, 'OK, Sara, jam her and let's 'Feed the Mouse.' "
Sure enough, Hofstra's Olivia Galati slammed Nevins' inside offering to the redoubtable Jessica Mouse at third base. Mouse's throw across the diamond was squeezed by first baseman Stephanie Medina.
And then … bedlam.
As the emotions poured out, capping one of the seminal moments in USF athletics history, the Bulls had completed their Saturday sweep with a 2-1 victory against Hofstra in the decisive Game 3 of the NCAA tournament Super Regional before 1,544 fans at the USF Softball Stadium.
The Bulls (50-12) will open with No. 4-seeded Oklahoma in the Women's College World Series, which begins on Thursday in Oklahoma City. USF has not won a national championship in any Division I sport.
"I had nothing but confidence when the ball was hit to Jess," Medina said.
"You focus on making the play then … tears of happiness, I would say," Mouse said.
When the celebration had died down, Eriksen and USF players expressed deep respect for Hofstra (42-15) and Galati, who threw all 27 innings and 328 pitches of the Super Regional.
"They played hard and so did we," Medina said. "It was a great series."
Each game was 2-1.
Hofstra won Friday night's opener in 11 innings with Galati winning her 32nd consecutive start to pull within one of an NCAA record that was established in 1982. Eriksen said his team wasn't about to panic. They just needed to play better on Saturday.
And the Bulls did just that, handing Galati consecutive losses.
USF, designated the visiting team in both games Saturday, faced elimination in Game 2, but prevailed in nine innings. Kenshyra Jackson's one-out RBI single in the top of the ninth drove home the first run, then Laura Fountain provided some insurance on a sacrifice fly.
It was needed.
The Pride loaded the bases with two outs and Becca Bigler beat out a slow roller and throw from USF shortstop Kourtney Salvarola, scoring Hofstra's run. Galati's subsequent grounder was scooped by Salvarola, who beat her by a step, preventing the tying run from scoring and ending the game.
In the decisive game, USF opened the scoring on Jackson's bases-loaded walk in the first inning. Medina provided the lead run with her sacrifice fly in the fifth. Leadoff batter Gina Kafalas set it up with excellent base-running. She singled, advanced on Mouse's sacrifice bunt and scooted to third on Galati's wild pitch.
"I think everybody did something to contribute to this – including the so-called 'unsung heroes' – and that's characteristic of this team," Eriksen said. "I knew what they could do. I've been around them all season. I felt good about this if we just executed."
USF received excellent pitching from Nevins, the left-hander, and Lindsey Richardson, the right-hander, who alternated throughout the series. Nevins had 23 strikeouts in 18 innings during the series, when she threw 305 pitches.
"Without our defense, none of this could have happened," Nevins said.
Nevins had her pick of schools coming out of Pinellas Park High. She wanted to stay home. And she was attracted by the notion of helping USF to its first College World Series.
Now it's reality.
Now it's history.
Before going to softball's Big Dance, USF players treated the crowd to some perfectly timed dance steps of their own. They were grinning, laughing, having fun.
"I don't think you can be too serious when you play this game," Eriksen said. "You prepare, but you play loose and confident. That's what this bunch has done. We won in the locker room long before this and that's what makes it so satisfying."