Tuesday, December 27, 2016

South Florida Profile: Could the Bulls Return to Group-of-Five Premier Status?

General Overview/2016 Recap: Ken Eriksen's Bulls started the season in horrifying fashion, losing four out of five games at their season-opening, hosted tournament. Though the losses were predominantly against quality opponents - South Carolina; Virginia Tech; Michigan; and Florida - that two were by lopsided scores of 11-2 and 11-1 only underscored the team's issues in the early season.

Erica Nunn earned all-American honors
in 2016, but has since graduated.
Photo: USF Athletics
The Michele Smith Invitational just days later didn't provide any better results, as the Bulls posted a 1-3 record in that tournament with losses to Auburn; Oklahoma State; and Tennessee.

The Bulls' season began looking up from there, however, as they beat the Big 12's Kansas twice and split two games with Wisconsin at their second Tampa-hosted tournament of the season.

For nearly a full month's time, from March 5th to April 3rd, the Bulls did not lose - victories over Illinois; USC-Upstate; Georgia Tech; Kent State; Marist; Northwestern; and a doubleheader sweep over Utah were part of the twenty-three game winning streak, as was a sweep through the first series of conference play over East Carolina.

A 3-0 loss to Florida mid-season added some power points to the Bulls' credit.

After the ECU series, the Bulls took a series win over Houston and later sweeping UConn; Memphis; and Tulsa before losing the final conference series of the year to in-state rival UCF.

In the AAC conference tournament, the Bulls beat Houston in the tournament semifinals before losing to Tulsa in the tournament championship game.

At the Florida State-hosted regional in Tallahassee, two losses to South Carolina bookending a victory over Florida A&M left the Bulls watching the regional championship and the remainder of the postseason from home.

Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P - (Erica Nunn); Cheyenne Eggens
C - (Lee Ann Spivey)
1B - Lauren Evans
2B - Kristen Wyckoff
3B - (Monica Santos)
SS - Cassidy Boyle
LF - Astin Donovan
CF - Juli Weber
RF - Mia Fung
DP - Sam Worrell

Carrying the Clipboards: 
Head coach Ken Eriksen, now entering his 21st season as the Bulls' fearless leader, is approaching and likely to hit his 900th career victory milestone during the 2017 season. During his two decades leading his program, the Bulls have reached the postseason a dozen times, including the Women's College World Series in 2012. Six times during his tenure his program has won fifty or more games, while his program has ended the season with a sub-.500 record only twice. He has stood as the head coach of the US National Team since 2011.

Wally King joined the Bulls staff this offseason, rejoining the Division 1 ranks after a single season as the head man at Ferris State (D2). A former men's fastpitch player, similar to Eriksen, King spent six years on the staff at Syracuse before ultimately winding up at Ferris State, where he led the program to a near-complete-180, turning around a 16-36 club from 2015 and leading the same program to a 36-18 mark in his first, and ultimately only, season as head coach.

Pitching coach Jessica Moore has proved to be one the sharpest up-and-coming softball minds in the coaching game. Though not a bad grouping prior to her arrival, it was under Moore's tutelage last season that the Bulls pitching staff grew exponentially in a short time period. Erica Nunn went from being an average 'joe' in the circle to a world-class all-American hurler in just one offseason's worth of work. Freshman Cheyenne Eggens posted a sub-2.35 ERA in her inaugural campaign, while opponents hit just .225 against the staff as a whole. A lot of the credit for the resurgence of the pitching staff must go to Moore, once an all-American and a stellar hurler in her own right.

Additions: An under-the-radar addition this offseason was Kalen McGill to the Bulls' pitching staff; the former South Alabama hurler moves over after spending last season at Kevin Fagan's College of Central Florida and could prove a capable ace against tough competition if her freshman campaign of 2015 (16-4, 1.92 ERA, 75/17 K/BB) holds steady. Also arriving via transfer is Hannah Parker, a former Western Kentucky hurler who, coupled with McGill, should give Moore a lot of weapons to work with in the circle. Also arriving are freshmen Samantha Blashinsky; AnaMarie Bruni; Brooke Hartman; LaShara James; Bethaney Keen; Kelsey Lay; Brooke Leistl; Brittney Rayfield; and Britney Schmidt.

Subtractions: Gone to graduation are the Bulls' all-American pitcher and home run leader in Erica Nunn and Lee Ann Spivey, neither of which will be any kind of easy to replace in their respective roles, incoming players notwithstanding. Gone, too, are role players Monica Santos (.256/4/30) and Amber Donovan (.412 slugging percentage), as well as former Ole Miss transfer Emily Gaitan.

The Bulls will play host to a host of programs to open the season, among them Michigan and Florida, both of whom the Bulls will face within the season's first four days. 

A matchup against the Big Ten's Wisconsin will follow in Tampa, while the Bulls will travel across Tampa Bay and an hour east to play the Michele Smith Tournament in Clearwater, which will see more early-season tests against James Madison; Hofstra; and Oklahoma State. 

Two games against Ole Miss; matchups against Purdue and Illinois of the Big Ten, as well as historically-dangerous North Dakota State; and single-game tilts against Auburn; Missouri; and Florida of the SEC highlight the remainder of the non-conference schedule.

Juli Weber, the reigning AAC Player of
the Year, intends to leave her mark on the
program in her senior season.
Photo: USF Athletics
In American conference play, the Bulls will play host to defending champion Tulsa; East Carolina; and Memphis, while they'll journey to UConn; UCF; and under-new-leadership Houston.

A late-April doubleheader against Florida Gulf Coast should be a fun late-season, non-conference matchup.

Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths - Jessica Moore did quite well with the pitching staff in her first season, and with talented and experienced depth incoming, it would not be overly surprising to see this staff in consideration as one of the best in the nation at year's end. On the offensive side of the ball, several versatile role players return and, while Spivey may be difficult to make up for, players like Juli Weber and Astin Donovan have shown it in them to step up when needed. Don't be surprised to see Weber in contention for a second-consecutive conference Player of the Year award.

Weaknesses - In the same department as lies the majority of the Bulls' strength in the coming year also sits a large potential weakness; both incoming transfers have experience, but are sure to be matched against some of the top teams in the nation early in the season. Their performance then could determine how the Bulls' season is to go. Though both performed adequately and well at their previous stops, neither has played to the level of an all-American, which is what they'll be replacing in the circle in Tampa. 

Outlook for 2017: The Bulls were very "sporadic" in 2016, inexplicably losing games that, while against quality opponents, were particularly lopsided. On the other hand, a twenty-three game winning streak is a difficult feat no matter the competition. To follow up such a streak with another streak, yet on the opposite side of the spectrum, seems a horrendous, twisted mess. If Eriksen can keep his program even-keeled and steady during the duration of the season, with the incoming talent and the talent already assembled and ready to step up, we might just see the Bulls posing a serious challenge for Oklahoma City again.

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