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Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Fountain catches on to new position

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Waiting for a game that never came on a field at Rutgers so waterlogged that you could have buried Jimmy Hoffa in the outfield without the aid of a shovel, South Florida coach Ken Eriksen slipped in a nautical reference in discussing junior Laura Fountain's role in the Bulls' turnaround since she took over as the starting catcher a month ago.

Laura Fountain
Laura Fountain has given South Florida a lift behind the plate.

"You've got to have energy behind the dish," Eriksen said. "That person is a focal point. They're the one that has their hands on the ball every single pitch, besides the pitcher. So for us to be steady behind the dish, strong up the middle, that's really where we've come about and made some pretty good movement toward climbing into the win column."

In Fountain's case, all hands on deck meant putting her hands back behind the dish.

Despite not having caught in a competitive game since she was about 12 years old, by her recollection, the team's semi-regular third baseman had a simple message for Eriksen when the previous starting catcher, Stormi Grzybek, went down with an injury and the coach eyed Fountain warming up freshman pitcher Sara Nevins one day.

"If you need it, I can do it," Fountain told Eriksen. "I'll do my best."

She still gets some help from teammates securing all the latches, hooks and straps associated with the tools of ignorance when pressed for time and gets a few butterflies when the call comes in for a curveball with sophomore Lindsey Richardson in the circle, but her best is working out pretty well. Just 16-14 when she stepped in, South Florida is 13-2 with Fountain at catcher, and a team picked to finish sixth in the Big East finds itself a half-game behind DePaul for first place, with a showdown against third-place Notre Dame on the horizon next week in Tampa.

Fountain has done her part on the tangible side of the ledger, raising her batting average while relearning her new old position, but as a self-described "goofball" whose main objective in visiting the circle between pitches is to lighten the mood, her presence itself has been perhaps her most important contribution. South Florida is young, it's dealing with injuries and it lacks a certain amount of power at the plate. But it does have two good young pitchers in Richardson and Nevins, and giving them a target they can trust was invaluable.

Sara Nevins
Sara Nevins gives the Bulls a powerful arm in the circle.

"Lefty, righty combination is a pretty good situation," Eriksen said of Richardson, a right-hander, and Nevins, a southpaw. "Lindsey has made it pretty easy for Sara to come into college and walk in as a freshman ready to play. [She] took her under her wing a little bit. But they ham-and-egg each other; they're goofy as heck, both of them. They get that rarefied air inside that eight-foot diameter [of the circle] -- we don't even want our infielders to run through there, to tell you the truth, during the ballgame, so they don't get caught up in it. Let them just keep going out there and doing what they're doing."

Nevins is 12-5 with a 1.87 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 119.2 innings, while Richardson is 10-6 with a 2.66 ERA -- numbers both have compiled despite facing Florida twice, as well as Alabama, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.

"Sara is more of a come-right-at-you hard pitcher, and Lindsey's got so much movement," Fountain said. "Lindsey works the zone all the time -- they both do, but Sara comes right at you, like 70 miles per hour, whereas Lindsey moves it in and out and it tails out and tails in."

That the Bulls remain a work in progress was evident from the results of the games they did get in during their time in New Jersey. They dropped a 3-1 decision against Seton Hall on Saturday, handing one of the sport's minnows its first and only win in 14 conference games, but bounced back to beat the same team by a 26-0 margin in the final two games of the series. The latter combined effort marked not only their best two-game output of the season but outpaced the most runs they had scored in any three consecutive games all season.

"It's baptism by fire with this team," Eriksen said before the Seton Hall games. "We've had some injuries; we've had to make some major changes. … So the evolvement of the identity of the team has come to point where we're a speed-oriented team now -- we're putting the ball in play, forcing mistakes from the other team. But we're getting good pitching and good defense, and if you can do that, if you can hold the other team to zero, you've got a chance. And that's what we've been living on."

It's sink or swim for South Florida, and if Fountain is any indication, the Bulls can hold their own when thrown in the deep end.

Headlines

• If you watched Sunday's thriller between Missouri and Oklahoma, you saw Tigers ace Chelsea Thomas make a strong case that she is the pitcher best equipped to carry a team for a week in Oklahoma City this June. The redshirt sophomore (and don't think Big 12 coaches don't wince every time they're reminded she's around for two more seasons) struck out 17 against one walk in 11 innings in a 1-0 win against a rival on national television -- the day after she went all nine innings and struck out another 17 batters in a 3-2 win against the Sooners. She was good as a freshman, but the changeup she's mastered this season puts her on par with some of the best of recent seasons.

• Just in time for the coming weekend's sold-out three-game series in Tucson, Arizona and Arizona State staked their claim to the top spots in the Pac-10 standings. The Wildcats dropped the opener against Washington by a 3-0 score, their fifth shutout loss of the season, but rallied to take the final two games by a combined 19-6 margin and sole possession of first in the league. All three hits in the series from Stacie Chambers went over the fence, giving her home runs on 38 percent of her hits in all, easily the highest percentage among qualified hitters in the Pac-10 in all games.

• Up the interstate a few miles, Arizona State took two of three from UCLA in Tempe, fueled in Sunday's series-clincher by two home runs from Mandy Urfer and back-to-back shutouts from Mackenzie Popescue and Dallas Escobedo. And on the subject of home run percentages, half of Urfer's six hits in conference play have cleared the fence. Arizona (Chambers and Brigette Del Ponte) and Arizona State (Urfer and Annie Lockwood) are the only Pac-10 teams that have two players with as many as three home runs in conference play.

• Elsewhere in the Pac-10, California had as productive a weekend as any team in the nation by sweeping three games at home against Oregon to improve to 5-4 in the league. That sweep against a team that arrived in Berkeley just four spots behind the Bears in the Top 25 sets up a closing stretch as nicely set up as one can get in a league with no easy weekends. The Bears play their next two series at home against Stanford and UCLA before traveling to Arizona to close the season. Ace Jolene Henderson didn't allow an earned run in 17 innings of work in the circle.

• Texas A&M and Nebraska were both coming off tough losses against Texas -- two of them in Nebraska's case. Now the Cornhuskers are coming off two tough losses against the Aggies in a make-or-break Big 12 series. Melissa Dumezich picked up a pair of complete-game wins for Texas A&M, striking out 18 batters in 14 innings while not allowing an earned run. She would need 10 more starts at her current pace, meaning both a heavy workload down the stretch and some kind of postseason run, but Dumezich is within 87 strikeouts of a place in the program's single-season top 10 and already has more than any A&M pitcher in 2009 or 2010.

• Don't look now, but there's an unfamiliar name led by a very familiar name on Michigan's heels in the Big Ten. Fueled by a walk-off grand slam from sophomore Amanda Wagner in Sunday's finale, Indiana swept two games from Wisconsin to improve to 8-2 in the league, including the lone win thus far enjoyed at Michigan's expense in the conference. The familiar name for an unfamiliar contender is, of course, Morgan Melloh. The Indiana native and Fresno State transfer is 22-14 with a 1.90 ERA and has thrown every pitch for the Hoosiers in Big Ten play.

… It was a good weekend for coaching milestones in Alabama, where both University of Alabama coach Pat Murphy and Troy University coach Melanie Davis reached 700 career wins. Davis got there a day earlier, so Murphy becomes the 36th coach to reach that mark in Division I. In the same game for the Crimson Tide, senior Kelsi Dunne became the school's all-time strikeout leader, passing former All-American Stephanie VanBrakle.

Spotlight

• The Conference USA race looks like the last lap of the weekend's race at Talladega -- league leader UAB came back to the pack slightly after losing two of three at home against East Carolina, while Houston bunched up the pack by taking two of three at home against second-place Tulsa. But that jumble is nothing compared to the race for individual pitching honors in the league. Houston's Amanda Crabtree (17-7, 0.96 ERA) won pitcher of the week honors for the fifth time after striking out 37 batters in 22 innings, including a shutout win midweek against Baylor. But Tulsa's Aimee Creger (16-2, 0.94 ERA) went all 11 innings to beat Crabtree 1-0 on Sunday, and East Carolina's Toni Paisley (24-8, 1.09 ERA) is her usual dominant self.

• Far from a letdown after last week's series win against UCLA in Los Angeles, Stanford rolled through a midweek win against San Jose State and a weekend sweep against Oregon State. The Cardinal lead the Pac-10 in walks with 43 in nine conference games. That's particularly troublesome for opponents, because they also lead the league with 21 steals in conference play -- 13 more than any other team. They totaled 17 walks and 13 steals against the Beavers. Junior outfielder Sarah Hassman stole five bases for the week, giving her 27 for the season, four behind Jessica Mendoza's single-season school record. Meanwhile, while updated comprehensive stats were unavailable, Teagan Gerhart appears to be one of three players, along with Alabama's Jennifer Fenton and Canisius' Lizzy Gatto, to steal at least 20 stolen bases without being caught.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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