They are playing for a national title. They are representing their school and boosting its profile. But when the University of South Florida softball team arrives at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City for today's opening round of the Women's College World Series, the Bulls acknowledge an even greater responsibility.
Children will be in the stands. Back in Tampa, little girls will watch on ESPN2.
"That's not to be taken lightly," USF senior third baseman Jessica Mouse said. "Not too long ago, those little girls were us."
The Bulls (50-12), who face the No. 4-seeded Oklahoma Sooners (50-8) in today's first game, have enjoyed a rollicking, entertaining season. Attempting to become USF's first team to capture a Division I national championship, they have become fan favorites to those who are just discovering this fast-paced sport.
They are a fun bunch, insisting laughter, camaraderie, light-hearted moments, focus and intensity can co-exist on an elite team.
To their coach, Ken Eriksen, they are role models.
"It's easy to root for these young ladies," Eriksen said. "I've had talented teams before, but some of them I haven't really enjoyed. It wasn't a fun process. This team has been great, great fun.
"When you don't care if you have a prominent or supporting role, when you're about the team, when you take care of your academic responsibilities, when you leave here as a good person, that's winning in the locker room. And that helps our sport."
USF has reached the pinnacle of a sport that seems to tap out at the college level. Professional leagues have struggled to survive in the United States. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee voted in 2005 to abolish softball and baseball as medal sports beginning with this summer's Olympic Games in London.
Eriksen was an assistant coach on the 2004 U.S. team that won gold and outscored opponents 51-1. Regardless of the motivations behind the IOC's decision — whether it was to neutralize U.S. domination of the sport or to protest its foreign policy — Eriksen said he's part of the contingent committed to restoring its international prominence.
"I don't understand why it happened because I hear about so many people who enjoy softball," said USF sophomore shortstop Kourtney Salvarola, who played on Team USA's junior squad last summer in South Africa. "I feel like we are seeking recognition for not only our school, but for our sport. We want people to watch."
"I think our game is great," USF sophomore pitcher Sara Nevins said. "I grew up loving it. I know there are young girls who are looking to us. If we can set a good example, that's great. There's a lot of good that has come from our season."
USF is a member of the Big East Conference and sponsors 17 intercollegiate sports — eight for men, nine for women. Softball has arguably been the most consistently excellent of USF's lineup.
Eriksen prides himself on finding top talent in Florida, a state that no longer takes a back seat to standard bearers such as California and Texas.
USF was selected for the 64-team NCAA tournament, then promptly won a regional matchup in Gainesville, defeating University of Florida, last season's national runner-up, to advance.
At last weekend's Super Regional round in Tampa, before sellout crowds and a national television audience, USF defeated Hofstra University in a best-of-three series to earn the school's first trip to Oklahoma City. In the crowd were high-profile leaders of USF's football team, quarterback B.J. Daniels and linebacker Sam Barrington, who cheered loudly.
"I feel like we had more pressure in the regular season," USF junior pitcher Lindsey Richardson said. "Now that we're here, we know we belong here. We don't feel pressure. We're just a bunch of ordinary, regular girls. We just go with the flow."
On and off the field.
Now they have an opportunity to go where no USF program has gone before.
There are 320 Division I softball programs. USF is one of eight teams still playing.
"I'm so proud of them," USF athletic director Doug Woolard said. "They seem to really like and respect each other. That makes such a difference in winning and losing. We can't wait to watch and see what they'll do next."
Women’s College World Series
USF (50-12) vs. Oklahoma (50-8)
WHERE: ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City
WHEN: 1 p.m. Thursday
TV/RADIO: ESPN2/1010 AM
NEED TO KNOW: USF is making its first WCWS appearance, Oklahoma its seventh. The Sooners won the 2000 national championship. … If USF wins, it faces the California-LSU winner at 7 p.m. Friday. If it loses, it faces the Cal-LSU loser on at noon Saturday.