Nevins fits in perfectly at South Florida
STORRS, Conn. -- Few are perfect over the long march of a softball season, something all the more evident after a week in which eight teams ranked in the top 10 dropped at least one game. But on the pitching side of the ledger, South Florida's Sara Nevins has come close enough to perfection this season to make moments of imperfection almost surprising by comparison.
South Florida joined the parade of upset victims when it lost the middle of three games at Connecticut and narrowly avoided losing the Big East series, escaping with an extra-innings win in the opener before run-ruling the Huskies in Sunday's finale to keep possession of first place in the conference. Nevins pitched in all three games and allowed runs in all three games (unearned on one occasion), only the second time all season that teams scored against her in three consecutive appearances. She surrendered 14 hits and five earned runs in 10.1 innings.
Nevins still headed home to Tampa with a 23-2 record and a 0.74 ERA in 179.2 innings this season.
It's close enough to perfect to allow South Florida's sophomore ace to be among 25 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year.
As a freshman, Nevins went 15-8 with a 1.71 ERA in 155.1 innings and 21 starts for the Bulls. Those are good numbers for any freshman pitcher but all the more impressive considering South Florida coach Ken Eriksen's estimation that Nevins was relying on physical ability for about 90 percent of her success. She was listed as a pitcher on the roster but the imposing 6-footer was perhaps more accurately described as a thrower.
"This year she's beginning to pitch," Eriksen said. "She's making hitters do things they're not comfortable doing. When you're working ahead in the count and able to move the ball around a little bit and hit your spots -- pitch instead of just throw -- that's what she really has done this year. She's making hitters do a lot of things they're not used to doing."
Nevins has walked just 31 batters and allowed only four home runs and 11 extra-base hits in her innings this season. Stringing together station-to-station rallies isn't easy against someone limiting opponents to a .170 batting average overall. No wonder Eriksen estimated the split between physical and mental credit for her success has shrunk to 60/40, a scary thought for foes when it comes to someone with two more seasons of eligibility.
Even at 40-6, South Florida still isn't an offensive juggernaut, especially by the standards of what it generally takes to reach the Women's College World Series these days. The Bulls have hit just 25 home runs this season and are hitting .285 overall, a team batting average that ranks them outside the top 50 nationally. A sloppy weekend in the field notwithstanding, Eriksen's teams generally do the little things well, from defense to small ball, but an ace like Nevins has the potential to change the equation in the postseason. A team doesn't need to be, well, perfect offensively when she's in there.
"Every team I've played on or coached, every game that a kid like Nevins goes out, you have a chance to win the ballgame just by her going out to the circle," Eriksen said. "It's not unlike Missouri with Chelsea [Thomas], it's not unlike Oklahoma with [Keilani] Ricketts. Those types of pitchers are going to give you a chance, give a team the best chance to win. Cal just happens to have two with Val [Arioto] and Jolene [Henderson]."
Eriksen wasn't just throwing around names. As coach of the U.S. national team in addition to his duties at South Florida, he worked with Thomas, Ricketts and Arioto last summer (albeit with Arioto as a hitter). He was also quick to add that Nevins isn't at that level yet and is best left to find her own path at her own pace. But even when she was a thrower, he liked her chances to become a pitcher.
"How she is in real life is how she's going to be receptive to potentially working on things with coaches to make her better," Eriksen said. "Here's a kid that's so competitive in the circle; you don't realize it because you don't see any emotion from her on or off the field, but boy, she gets competitive. She wants to get better. The one thing about her is when she sits in the dugout, or if she's watching other teams play, she's being observant. She's trying to learn things to get better."
Player Q&A: Central Florida's Mackenzie Audas
It's not often that the University of Florida drops a game against in-state competition. It's not often the Gators are shut down by a freshman pitcher. So it goes without saying that it's a big deal when both happen on the same night. University of Central Florida freshman Mackenzie Audas shut out the Gators with a two-hitter last week, continuing a sensational debut season in which the 5-foot-5 right-hander is 17-6 with a 1.06 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 165.2 innings. Audas talked about life as a freshman pitcher and a wise choice of role models.
Graham Hays: What was the feeling like getting the ball against a team like Florida?
Mackenzie Audas: It was pretty nerve-racking, especially because they were ranked No. 3. So I was kind of nervous, but my catcher and I had a game plan, so I knew what I wanted to do and that kind of helped me calm down. And after our team scored runs [in the bottom of the first inning] it helped me calm down even more.
GH: Are you usually able to tell in warm-ups, or even before then, whether or not you have that "A-plus" stuff?
MA: Honestly, no, because some days I'll warm up really well and I'll go into the game and something happens and I'm not throwing like I did. And then other days, I'll throw not very well in the bullpen and I'll go out there and I'll pitch lights-out.
GH: How did you feel that night in warm-ups?
MA: That night I felt pretty good. I was pretty relaxed and I felt like everything was working pretty well. I expected to go out there and throw well, but I didn't know how well.
GH: That was hardly your only big start of the season. You pitched against UCLA the second weekend of the season. You aren't a West Coast kid, obviously, but facing UCLA, facing that kind of a name, is that still a big deal?
MA: Oh yeah, definitely, because I grew up watching the Women's College World Series, so I knew all about UCLA. It was a big deal, and it was a big deal to hold them that well [a 3-1 loss]. And even Washington [a 1-0 loss in 10 innings] because they won in '09, so that was a big deal to me, too.
GH: Were there pitchers you looked up to growing up or that you borrowed things from or emulated?
MA: I really wanted to become like the Arizona pitcher, Taryne Mowatt. I just loved how she threw a lot of changeups and stuff, and so that was kind of my goal -- to learn how to throw a changeup really well because I'm about her size. I grew up watching Jennie Finch, and I knew I would never get past 5-5, which I am, so my goal was not to be super overpowering but just have a lot of good pitches.
GH: Did you ever feel like you had to prove something to college programs that maybe a kid who was 5-foot-11 or 6 feet might not have had to?
MA: I think so because there's always going to be that stereotype, and it's been well-deserved, that normally the bigger pitchers are the better, more dominant pitchers. So that's one of the reasons I don't think I got a lot of looks. I also peaked late, so that's another reason. It did make me want to strive to become even better and work harder and gain command of as many pitches as I could.
GH: You're the ace on this team, but you're still a freshman. Do you still have freshman chores like carrying bags?
MA: Oh yeah, I still have to pick up after practice and carry an equipment bag to and from the airport and all that fun stuff that freshmen get to do. I'm just another person on the team, no special treatment.
GH: You beat Florida, you throw the two-hitter, do you learn anything about yourself in that kind of a game, or is just that the rest of us learn what you already knew about yourself?
MA: This whole season has been this big learning experience, especially my confidence. In high school last year I did pretty well, but it's high school. College is a pretty big step up, especially if you're playing Florida and UCLA and stuff. So I think I've learned to gain confidence and to know that even on my off days, I can still throw good enough for my team to win. I think that's a major thing for any pitcher to learn is just to keep confident no matter the situation.
Games to watch
Alabama at Georgia: The nation gets a chance to see Thursday's opener (ESPN2/ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET) as Alabama looks to protect its 11-0 road record this season. Georgia's bats have gone cold in SEC play with a .230 batting average and .379 slugging percentage, but no ace in the conference has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Erin Arevalo (101 strikeouts, 16 walks in 85 innings). The senior has put herself in the discussion with Alabama's Jackie Traina, Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe, Florida's Hannah Rogers and LSU's Rachele Fico as the league's best.
Arkansas at Auburn: We'll find out whether Auburn has already seen the worst of the storm. The Tigers were swept at Florida last weekend and have won only three of their past 17 games, mostly against the core of the SEC power base. If they win this series, with a road series at also-ran South Carolina the following week, they remain in good shape for a spot in the SEC tournament and likely the NCAA tournament. But if Arkansas, just a game behind Auburn in the race for the No. 8 seed, wins two games on the road, Auburn's collapse could be complete.
California at Oregon: All of a sudden this is a matchup of first place visiting third place, even though Arizona, UCLA and Washington are ranked ahead of the Ducks while looking up at them in the standings. Cal swept Oregon last year in Berkeley, limiting the visitors to two runs in three games, but the last time the Golden Bears traveled north to Eugene in 2010, they came away with three losses -- the last time any team swept them in a conference series.
DePaul at Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish still own an RPI that puts them squarely in the conversation about at-large spots for the NCAA tournament, but losing a second consecutive home series after losing two of three against Syracuse last weekend (on top of a midweek split at Rutgers), would not help the profile. After allowing three or fewer runs in 12 of 13 games, the Fighting Irish have allowed four or more in four of their past six games.
Georgia Tech at North Carolina: Entering Wednesday's nonleague game at Charlotte, Tar Heels ace Lori Spingola has been on a roll of late. She allowed just one earned run in 19 innings last week, beating UNC Greensboro once and NC State twice. She allowed 19 hits in 15 innings in three appearances against the Yellow Jackets last season in Atlanta, but a reversal of fortune here against Hope Rush and Tech could complicate the ACC race in pursuit of Florida State.
Houston at Tulsa: As seems to be the case every season, there's a bottleneck atop the Conference USA standings, one this series could begin to clear up or exacerbate. Tulsa finishes the season with a road trip to fellow contender UAB, but it currently owns a one-game lead on both UAB and Houston and a two-game lead on Central Florida. Golden Hurricanes sophomore Aimee Creger has not been the team's most effective pitcher this season, but she allowed just two earned runs in 17 innings on the road against Houston a season ago.
Missouri at Oklahoma: You can make a case for Jolene Henderson and Dallas Escobedo in the Pac-12, or Jackie Traina and Ellen Renfroe in the SEC, but it's safe to say there won't be a better pitching matchup this season than Missouri's Chelsea Thomas taking on Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts (Sunday's finale is on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET). The Team USA teammates and Big 12 rivals lived up to the fanfare when the teams met a season ago. Thomas struck out 17 and went all nine innings in a 3-2 win to open that series and then struck out 17 more while going the distance in a 1-0 win in 11 innings in the finale.
Pacific at UC Santa Barbara: There is still much softball to be played in the Big West, a conference without a postseason tournament. But with Pacific holding a one-game lead over UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and Long Beach State, this is the first domino in the stretch drive. In addition to sharing the load in the circle for the Tigers, Nikki Armagost heads to Santa Barbara hitting an even .500 with a 1.154 OPS in league play.
Stanford at Arizona State: The Cardinal did exactly what they needed to do last week to get back in the conversation, winning one of three at UCLA and then sweeping three at home from Oregon State. After scoring nine runs in their first six conference games, they piled up 60 in their past nine games. Can Teagan Gerhart make the offense hold up if that continues? She allowed just seven earned runs in 16.1 innings against the Sun Devils last season, about as well as any pitcher fared against the eventual national champions.
Player of the year watch
Lauren Cumbess, Kentucky
Stock up: A super regional team last season, Kentucky still has work to do to reach .500 and claim the NCAA tournament bid that would likely accompany that mark. But the Wildcats are closer than might have been expected thanks in large part to Cumbess. The least-utilized of Kentucky's four starting pitchers, Cumbess became the first pitcher since Monica Abbott to no-hit Georgia. She also contributed eight hits in a 3-2 week for the Wildcats.
Olivia Galati, Hofstra
Stock up: She had a heck of a weekend in one game against George Mason on Sunday, driving in three runs without registering an out and throwing a no-hitter in the circle. But that was just the curtain call. Galati drove in four runs and earned both wins in a Saturday doubleheader against Mason. She's third in the Colonial Athletic Association in batting average and leads the conference in wins and ERA.
Veronica Grant, Syracuse
Stock up: The junior picked an opportune moment to hit her first home run of the season, her seventh-inning shot tying Sunday's finale of a three-game series at Notre Dame. Syracuse went on to win the game in extra innings and the series with two wins. But Grant wasn't a one-hit wonder. She finished the series with seven hits in 11 at-bats, including the home run and two doubles, and drove in five runs for the Orange.
Stephany LaRosa, UCLA
Stock up: Being the best freshman in the Pac-12 is an honor unto itself, sort of like being the low amateur golfer in the U.S. Open. But LaRosa seems to have her sights set on bigger things -- such as being the Pac 12's best hitter, period. After piling up four hits, two walks and two RBIs to lead the Bruins to a series win against Washington, on top of eight hits and 10 RBIs in a midweek series win against Stanford, only Washington's Kaitlin Inglesby has both a better batting average and more RBIs in conference play.
Kirsten Verdun, DePaul
Stock up: The one-woman wrecking crew for the Blue Demons isn't among the 25 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, but she spent last week showing why her omission was a mistake. It wasn't the toughest week on DePaul's schedule, but Verdun still came away with four wins against Illinois State, Northern Illinois and Pittsburgh (twice) and struck out 28 batters in 29 innings. She also totaled four hits and five walks at the plate. She has a 1.124 OPS at the plate and a 17-6 record and 1.58 ERA in the circle.