Although they put up a good fight on Sunday, USF's softball season came to an end in the Gainesville Regional final when the Bulls lost to the Gators 2-0. The team finished their season with a record of 45-16, but came up a bit short of returning to the Women's College World Series.
That doesn't mean this year's team wasn't as good, though. Compared to the 2012 team, this year's squad was remarkably similar in most statistical categories. Let's start with the offense. Last year's team had a slightly better batting average (.258 to .250), but this year's team hit more home runs (44 to 27) and had a higher OPS (.712 to .702). They stole fewer bases than in 2012 (94 last year, 64 this year) but stole them at a comparable rate (81% last year, 77% this year). And their runs per game, strikeouts, and walks were almost identical.
The pitching and defense was just as good as last year, too. Their team ERA was 1.23 last year; this year it was 1.34. They struck out more batters this year and held hitters to a lower batting average (.184 in 2012, .165 in 2013). USF threw 24 shutouts this season, compared to 23 last year. They hit fewer batters and cut down on their illegal pitches. And this year's team fielded a little bit better, reducing their errors from 57 to 51.
So how did this year's team do "worse"? Let's look back at last year's tournament, where USF caught several big breaks on their way to OKC:
- USF was sent to Gainesville for the regional round last year, where Florida had been nationally seeded. But the Gators were reeling. Their team chemistry imploded right before the tournament began, and three of their key players were thrown off the team.
- Florida couldn't circle the wagons fast enough and lost their opening game to Florida Gulf Coast. That meant as long as USF kept winning, they would only have to beat the Gators once to advance. USF beat C. Florida and FGCU on Friday and Saturday, then closed out the regional with a 1-0 win over Florida on Sunday.
- The Bulls were one of the few unseeded teams left in the field as the Super Regionals set up. But they caught two more breaks -- USF got to play a fellow unseeded team in Hofstra, and they got to host the series in Tampa. (It was the only Super Regional with two unseeded teams facing each other.) As you know, the Bulls prevailed in a tight and extremely tense three-game series, winning both games on Saturday to reach the WCWS.
USF wasn't so fortunate this year. The Gators might have been even better this year than they would have been at full strength last year, and they mowed through their regional without being seriously threatened. (There was a big break waiting for the Bulls if they could have somehow gotten past UF, though -- UAB was the surprise winner of the Louisville Regional, and USF could possibly have been awarded hosting privileges for a Bulls-Blazers Super Regional.)
So the ultimate question may be, can the softball team realistically be any better than this? They have tons of pitching, and Ken Eriksen has always been able to find it and cultivate it. The Bulls are currently second in Division I in ERA, and both Lindsey Richardson (retroactive boss) and Sara Nevins (boss) rank in the top 10 individually. But maybe there aren't enough big-time hitters in college softball to go around after all the bluebloods get their pick. With the American setting up to be a very weak softball league, USF may never have access to the Lauren Chamberlain or Lauren Gibson types who can hit well over .400, mash 20 or 30 home runs, and create a ripple effect through the batting order. You can go a long way on pitching and run prevention, but the annual national title contenders have both elite pitching and elite hitting. That final piece to the puzzle may be constantly out of reach.
P.S. We're not complaining about any of this. It's still really good to have a team that can "only" reach the NCAAs every year and make a deep run if the chips fall the right way. Except for men's soccer, we can't say that about anyone else.
P.P.S. Apropos of nothing... remember Olivia Galati from that Hofstra Super Regional, who pitched all 27 innings for them? I called her "apparently some kind of cyborg." This year she threw 341 innings in 56 appearances. The rest of Hofstra's staff combined threw 44 1/3 innings. Galati pitched 88.5% of her team's innings for the whole season! Augie Garrido thinks that's pitcher abuse.