For the first time since 2001, USF softball is going to an NCAA regional that doesn't have the Florida Gators in it. But they might be facing an even tougher opponent.
USF will travel to Tallahassee to face South Carolina in the opening game, and then either #8 seed Florida State or Fordham in the second game of the double-elimination tournament. The winner of the Tallahassee regional will face the winner of the Tempe regional, which consists of #9 Arizona State, Michigan, San Diego State, and Dartmouth. Click here to see the full bracket.
This is about the best regional draw USF could have hoped for. They avoid nemesis Florida in both the regionals and the super regionals. They also avoid Louisville, who dealt USF four losses this season, and most of the SEC, which placed a whopping eleven teams in the 64-team NCAA tournament. And they face teams Sara Nevins has had success against in her career.
On the other hand... Florida State is really, really, good.
But first, the Bulls will play South Carolina. The Gamecocks went 11-13 in the SEC, with five of those wins coming against the league's two bottom-rung teams, Mississippi and Arkansas. They have one good non-league win, at Arizona State. That leaves them at 7-12 against NCAA teams, which is close to USF's record against such competition. Their only common opponent with USF this year was Tennessee, who swept a three-game series from the Gamecocks and won one game against the Bulls in Tampa.
The Gamecocks don't have any one standout player - they didn't place anyone on the all-SEC first or second team - but they seem to be a deep team, with 13 players seeing action in 40 or more games. The pitching is shared equally between Julie Sarratt and all-conference freshman Nickie Blue.
Florida State went a whopping 50-6, blew through the ACC regular season and tournament, and loaded up on personal awards. They had both the Pitcher of the Year and Player of the Year in Lacey Waldrop and shortstop Maddie O'Brien, respectively. #2 pitcher Jessica Burroughs went 17-1 with a 1.92 ERA. They have good hitters at all positions and home run threats in O'Brien (23 HR) and outfielder Courtney Senas (13 HR).
FSU has three common opponents with USF this season. The Noles beat AAC/NCAA teams Central Florida and Houston in single games; the Bulls lost 2 of 3 to UCF and swept three games from Houston But the real barometer is the Florida Gators, who crushed USF 17-1 and 10-3, but split two close games with the Noles.
The other team in the regional, Fordham, is probably the strongest #4 seed in the entire field. They are #68 in the RPI, while most #4 seeds are well outside the Top 100. They have won three of the last four Atlantic 10 titles, and won NCAA regional games in 2013 (over Marist) and 2011 (over host Penn State). They don't have any wins against NCAA-level teams this season, but do have some close losses, including a 3-2 loss to #1 overall seed Oregon. They lost 2-1 to UCF and 9-2 to Florida, but beat the Binghamton team that handed USF its only bad loss of the season. Fordham's best player is probably slugging infielder Elise Fortier.
USF did not face any of their regional opponents this season, but has beaten them all recently. Last season, the Bulls defeated South Carolina 5-3. Two seasons ago, USF beat Florida State 2-1, in a matchup of ranked teams. In 2011, Fordham defeated USF 1-0 in extra innings. Sara Nevins pitched well in all of those games, allowing only 2 runs in 18 innings.
And that, I think, is USF's best advantage in this regional. Not only has Nevins been successful against these teams, but most of their hitters haven't faced her before. Studies have shown that familiarity and study, rather than muscle and reflexes, play a larger factor in hitting a pitched ball.
They say "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know", but the reverse might be true for USF softball this season.