It’s tournament bound again for the University of South Florida women’s softball team.
Led by star Sara Nevins, the American Athletic Conference’s top pitcher for 2014, the Bulls (41-15) are making their third straight NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons, starting May 15 at Tallhassee with the regionals.
Back in March, the sports journalism students at Centennial College visited with the Bulls in Tampa and got to know some of the key performers for one of America’s best softball teams.
Here’s a preview look.
Erica Nunn, Pitcher/Outfielder
By Joe Pack
Erica Nunn is pitching her way towards an unconventional career.
Playing out of the University of South Florida, the sophomore’s goal is to follow former Bulls teammate Lindsey Richardson, who joined the New York/New Jersey Comets of the women’s National Pro Fastpitch league in 2013.
The NPF, formerly the Women’s Pro Softball League (WPSL), revived the pro circuit in 2004 but currently includes only four teams, making a career in softball an unlikely destination for most young women.
“I want to play [pro softball],” said Nunn. “I think it’s getting bigger.”
She has an 11-7 record with a 2.79 ERA, 151 strikeouts and just 50 walks as the No. 2 starter behind Sara Nevins.
Nunn looks backward and forward as she moves into her future. In addition to Richardson, she names her brother and father as positive influences. She also inherited their jersey number.
“(Number 20) was kind of a family number,” she said.
When Nunn was a freshman, Richardson was a senior. Before the latter displayed the promise of playing pro ball, Richardson made quite the impression on Nunn.
“She was a positive influence, she made me mature,” said Nunn. “She just worked really hard.”
But Nunn also embraces the fostering of the Bulls’ younger pitching staff. She acknowledged that coach Ken Eriksen is known for not allowing his pitchers to throw complete games, something not all elite pitchers are used to, coming out of high school softball.
“I try to help Susan (Wysocki), our freshman this year,” said Nunn. “You talk to her about the coaching staff. Our coaching staff is different, more situational.
“All through high school I pitched every game. When I got here, it was definitely a shock. I’ve accepted it that I might not pitch a whole game. When the next person comes in you just cheer them on.”
Nunn’s mental strength might be a contributing factor to her future success. Asked about teammate Sam Greiner’s mention of the difference between pitching and “throwing”, she emphasized the importance of a strong, psychological game.
“Pitching is more mental,” she said. “You have to know counts, situations. That’s what I love about [it].”
Asked how the pitching staff manages its decisive success, Nunn remained steady.
“We look forward,” she said.
Kourtney Salvarola, Shortstop
By Geordie Carragher
Going into college, Kourtney Salvarola had a difficult choice to make.
The 22-year-old from Annapolis, Md., had to pick between softball or volleyball, as she led Broadneck High School to 4A state championships in both sports in her senior season.
She chose softball, and the senior University of South Florida shortstop hasn’t looked back.
“I absolutely love volleyball, and to this day, I miss it,” Salvarola said at the USF campus. “There was something there that I knew I’d have a better chance at being a little more successful at softball than I would be at volleyball.”
It was the right choice, as Salvarola has earned All-Big East Conference First Team honours each of the last two seasons. She led her team in batting average the past two seasons, as well as home runs (13) and RBIs (43) in 2013.
This season, she is batting .338 with 14 home runs and 32 RBIs heading for the tournament.
One of seven seniors on the Bulls, Salvarola credits her teammates with aiding her development on and off the field.
“A lot of them are my very close friends, and it’s been really good to watch each other grow and perform,” she said. “I definitely wouldn’t want to do it with another group of people.”
The USF coaching staff has also changed Salvarola as a player, she said.
“I never had to question if they cared about me as a person or if they wanted me to succeed,” she said. “They’re a great coaching staff, and that’s a big part of my success is their support and them helping me become the player I am.”
Along with USF teammate Sara Nevins, Salvarola played for Team USA at the 2013 World Cup of Softball. Salvarola led the Americans with a .625 batting average to help the team earn a silver medal.
“It was a wonderful opportunity, and I couldn’t ask for any other privilege than to play for my country,” she said. “It took a lot of hard work and dedication, not even just in athletics, but in my school life.
“It was an honour, and it’s something I hope I can continue to do.”
If she could represent Team USA if softball was reinstated for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo?
“I don’t even know what I would feel like,” she said. “I felt on top of the world when I was asked to play this year.”
For now, Salvarola’s focus is on helping the Bulls return to the Women’s College World Series.
They made it in 2012, where the Bulls finished seventh.
“It’s given us a taste of what it’s like,” Salvarola said. “It’s made us all want to work hard and do as best we can to get back.”
Getting back to the Women’s College World Series would mean a lot to Salvarola.
“This is a bunch of people who care about each other more than just softball,” she said. “We care about each other off the field, and the whole environment is great.
“It’s something that would mean a lot to me.”
Stephanie Medina, First Base
By Mitchell Machtinger
Entering her final season as a member of the University of South Florida Bulls’ women’s softball team, Stephanie Medina is reflective on her career.
Medina, the starting first baseman, is hitting .357 with 3 homers and 37 RBI heading into the tournament. She also committed just a single error in 241 chances as a senior.
“I know that my time’s starting to run out. I know that I have three months left of softball forever,” said Medina, back in March. “I know that I can’t let the little things that used to get to me get to me, like small failures.
“It’s a failure sport so I know that I just have to keep moving and stay positive as much as I can.”
As a student-athlete, Medina knows the importance of balancing her busy schedules in both softball and academics.
Last season, she was rewarded a partial scholarship after being named a Big East Scholar Athlete. There have been days during the semester this year when Medina has had to leave practice early to ensure she arrived to class on time.
The 22-year-old has come up with a formula to help keep her focused and ready for both.
“You have to pick if you want eight hours of sleep, friends, or if you want softball; you’ve got to pick two,” Medina said at the Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center. “I have school, I have softball and I want sleep.
“I don’t necessarily get to hang out with my friends all the time, but I have 22 other girls [on the team] that I’m with 24/7 that are great friends, but you’ve got to learn that your studies come way before your social life.”
Majoring in criminology, Medina is hoping to get a position federally. However, she is not willing to close the door completely on softball once her playing days are over, as the senior has thought about transitioning to a coaching role.
However, Medina’s career has not been without struggles. Last summer, she had surgery after a torn left hip labrum. After her freshman year, Medina had the same surgery on her right labrum. She’s scheduled for another surgery this summer.
“I’ve had to battle through those obstacles and make sure I stay level headed playing through those injuries.”
In the end, there is one memory that shines as Medina’s favourite.
“Definitely going to the College World Series in my sophomore year. It was absolutely phenomenal to know that [it was] our program’s first time ever winning a Super Regional and going to a College World Series and that I was a part of helping our team do that.
“It was a great group of girls and a great atmosphere to take the trip all together to Oklahoma.”
D’Anna Devine, Outfield/Infield
By Namish Modi
D’Anna Devine values team success so much, she had no idea what her own batting average was.
The outfielder’s team-first attitude is a key component of the recent success of the University of South Florida’s girl’s softball squad.
“I try not keep track of [batting average], at the end of the day, as long as we’re winning I’m okay,” said the 21-year-old Devine. “When we’re out there, If I get a job to sacrifice bunt, [get a] sacrifice fly, and a run scores I’m OK.”
However, the college junior’s batting average has improved steadily over her first three years. She had a .269 average in her freshman year, followed up by a .279 in her sophomore season. This season the native of Morrisville, Pennsylvania has posted a .276 average heading into the tournament.
Devine’s attitude and philosophy towards the game hasn’t changed since much her freshman year.
The 5-foot-7 left-handed hitter was also a member of the 2012 Bulls, who were the first USF softball team to participate in the College World Series.
“If I could [dream] of the perfect season I could have as a freshman, that would be it,” said Devine. “Obviously, I wish we would have won the world series, [but] it was a very fun experience.
“It was a little rocky at first for me, I play outfield and I was playing second base that year, and that’s where [coach] needed me, of course I would never say no. I’d played the infield before, I was familiar with it but it was a lot to get comfortable with.
“The chemistry and leadership we had with that team was unbelievable”
Devine’s favourite softball player is an American Olympian.
“My favourite softball player would have to be Natasha Watley, because she’s a left-handed hitter and slapper too,” said Devine.
Watley won a gold medal with the US women’s softball team in 2004 in Athens, and a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
However, Devine or any of her teammates won’t get a chance to represent their country at the summer games any time soon. The International Olympic Committee voted to remove softball and baseball from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in 2005.
“I was heartbroken,” said Devine. “I feel like we deserve to be in the Olympics. I don’t really know why softball and baseball were taken out.
“People were saying because the USA always wins. But you can’t penalize a country for just being good at what they do. We work hard for what we do, nothing has been handed to us. Every person who’s at that level has worked hard to get there, so Ife el like why not?”
In the meantime, Devine and her teammates will make another run at glory which they nearly achieved in 2012.
Monica Santos, Infielder
By Dave Kaplan
Monica Santos always looks to beat the odds.
The Puerto Rican native and member of the University of South Florida women’s softball team survived a near death experience, at just nine months old, during an operation to correct her spina bifida.
“My mom always tells me that I am a miracle child,” said Santos. “I don’t exactly see it like that. But in everything I do, I aim to prove people wrong.”
Born with a bone spur protruding through her spinal cord, Santos was revived on the operation table after flat lining during a dangerous procedure to rectify her condition.
“It was a pretty scary experience for my mom because she didn’t know what was going on,” said Santos, an infielder who is hitting .261 this season heading for the tournament with 3 homers and 11 RBI in 44 games.
A developmental congenital disorder where portions of the spinal cord are able to protrude through unformed vertebra, spina bifida is one of the most common birth defects, affecting nearly one out of every 1000 births.
It is common for complications to arise following spina bifida surgeries. Often, the scarring from the surgery can result in a tethered spinal cord.
“Doctors told my mom that I would probably have difficulties walking when I was older,” said Santos. “Most kids with spinal bifida end up in wheelchairs. Some recover, but it is difficult.”
Unwilling to let her condition affect her future, Santos worked hard to succeed in softball, making the Puerto Rican junior women’s national team in 2009.
Soon after she earned a spot on the Puerto Rican women’s national senior team, where she has remained a perennial infielder, along with her USF teammate Karla Claudio.
Her spot on the team has afforded her the opportunity to travel around the world playing the sport she loves.
“We competed in the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma,” said Santos. “Then we went to Puerto Rico to qualify for the Pan-American Games and the Central American Games.”
Successful in these qualifications rounds, Santos is expected to don Puerto Rico’s colours for women’s softball at the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto, Canada.
Although she retains a slight limp, the USF third baseman is making an impression with the Bulls.
Santos believes her determination has helped her to triumph against those who have doubted her abilities.
“Even when I was young, people thought I was too small to play baseball and that I couldn’t hit,” said Santos. “I use it as motivation. You just want to go out and prove people wrong.”
By Kamal Hylton
A catcher’s mind can be a crowded place.
Kaitlyn Santo, a backstop for the University of South Florida Bulls softball team, would understand this perfectly.
Working with up to five pitchers on the staff, building chemistry and a relationship with each of them is crucial.
“The pitcher is the most important position and you have to stay on the same page as them,” said Santo, calmly chatting in a school hallway while a tornado warning was going on upstairs.
“At practice we learn each other, what each person throws, their strong points and talk to them one on one. If they’re struggling you have to know how to talk to them and when to get key point across during the game.”
The 5-foot-7 senior from Palm Harbour, Florida, credits much of her game vision and awareness to sheer experience, particularly her time in junior college before joining USF.
“I’ve been playing softball since I was five years old so it’s just second nature to me,” Santo said. “From high school I went to Indian River State College for two years and I think it was a great stepping stone for me, it was a smaller school in a smaller area and I think it was a great transition into a bigger Division 1 school.”
One of Santo’s main goals before graduating is to get back to the College World Series, repeating or even surpassing what was accomplished in 2012 when the Bulls advanced out of the Big East and lost to the tournament hometown favourite Oklahoma Sooners in the first round.
“I think each and every day it’s one step closer to getting back to the College World Series. Each day we’re practicing hard and giving it our best to get back because at the end of the day most of us won’t be playing softball anymore.”
Unfortunately, softball isn’t as streamlined towards a professional career and as a result there is a good chance most of the players on the team won’t be playing beyond this point.
However Santo has prepared for this, combining her athletic ability, quick mind she has developed on the field with her work in the classroom toward another line of work.
“Well, I double majored. My first degree was in public health and my second was in criminology and I graduate in May. I actually plan on going to the police academy and using that criminology degree.”
Lee Ann Spivey, Catcher
By Matt Tidcombe
Lee Ann Spivey hopes her softball career will continue well past her playing days at the University of South Florida.
But when she does finally hang her cleats up, she already knows what’s going to be next on the agenda.
“I love to write and I’m currently writing a book,” Spivey. “I’m hoping to carry softball as long as it takes me and whenever I am done I am hopefully going to do sports journalism or something along those lines.”
That book is going to be what she describes as “an inside perspective on athletics.” As a standout high school athlete and with a four-year career at USF to dwell on too, Spivey, who plays as a catcher, says she has plenty to draw on.
“I feel like I’m a person who has had a lot of experiences throughout my life already that most people haven’t had,” she said. “Most people don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes when it comes down to games and stuff, so I’m doing a kind of insider perspective.”
Spivey says she won’t release the book until she has finished her playing career, one she hopes extends pass USF. The sophomore says she has about 100 pages written and has “thrown a couple of things around but [has] nothing permanent yet” regarding a title.
The Palm Coast, Fla., native says that the biggest misconception surrounding athletes is their commitment to school, something she takes seriously. But she admits it upsets her when other students question their commitment in the classroom.
“Kids will look at you in class and be like ‘you’re an athlete. Why are you sleeping in class? They don’t care about grades or anything,’” the Palm Coast, Fla., native said.
“Whereas in reality I just had an eight hour practice from 6 a.m.-2 p.m. and now I’ve got to go to class, I haven’t even eaten lunch, and I’m trying to focus on grades.”
One thing that can’t be questioned is her impact on the USF softball team. As the team’s No. 1 catcher, Spivey plays almost every game. While her receiving skills are considered top-notch, her bat is an even more prized asset.
Last season, the 19-year-old hit .288 with four home runs and 35 RBIs, part of that time spent in the outfield so coach Ken Eriksen could keep her bat in the lineup.
This year she is hitting .290 with 9 homers and 31 RBI in 50 games, heading for the tournament.
“In the outfield, it’s kind of like being a gazelle,” she said. “You run freely after balls, dive like crazy but when you are the catcher you are in every single play, so that’s fun also.
“I call my own pitches and I’m kind of in more control of the game [behind the plate]. I like that aspect of catching.”
Eriksen had been recruiting Spivey since she was in Grade 8 and his dedication to securing her commitment to USF was a large part of why she signed. It also meant she could stay close to home.
“I had a bunch of offers at other places, in state and out of state, other Division One schools,” she said. “But I picked USF because I love Tampa.
“Once you live here it is hard to leave. I love our head coach too. It’s also more of a family type environment and that’s what I was looking for.”