Florida International U

FIU Panthers enter Conference USA Softball tournament as No. 3 seed

The theme of change ran through the FIU softball program this year. Head coach Jake Schumann, desiring a change from 16 years of around .500 play, made the team slogan “Team 17 — be different from every other team that’s ever been here.”

FIU signed its first high school All-American, Miami Gulliver Prep graduate Stephanie Texeira, whom Schumann called “a program-changer” at about the same time Wednesday as she was being named Conference USA Freshman of the Year. The Panthers go into their first game of the Conference USA Softball tournament as the No. 3 seed, 1:30 p.m. on Thursday against East Carolina at FAU, with a solid chance to change FIU’s conference tournament history.

Even the two previous NCAA tournament participants among FIU’s previous 16 softball seasons, the 2003 and 2010 Panthers, didn’t win the conference tournament. Both got in as at-large teams, a designation some media tournament projectionists see for 33-19 FIU after the Panthers ran off six wins to close the season.

FIU slapped aside doormat Southern Mississippi in the final sweep with junior Shelby Graves pitching a no-hitter and combining with sophomore Corinne Jenkins on another shutout. But as a better measure of where FIU stands, the previous three-game sweep saw the Panthers humiliate North Texas. North Texas came into town No. 2 in the conference and left town early after getting mercy-ruled in the third game.

Jenkins (17-9, 2.56 ERA) and Graves (15-7, 3.37) allowed a combined seven runs in the last six games.

So did the Panthers close the season on a similar rampage with which they opened it.

FIU blew out to a 12-3 start that saw first baseman Texeira win Conference Player of the Week after her first week of college ball. She hasn’t slowed much since. Her .419 batting average is on pace to break Ashley McClain’s FIU record of .409 set in 2011. She also leads the team in home runs (11), slugging percentage (.736), on-base percentage (.527), walks (26) and RBI (41).

“Because of her, we’ve had a couple of commitments from the top local kids in Broward and Miami-Dade for next year and the year after,” Schumann said. “They’ve come to the games, seen Tex have her success and they want that, too.”

Along with unanimously being voted Freshman of the Year by C-USA coaches and making the All-Freshman team with FIU’s second-leading hitter, Miami Palmetto High graduate Gabby Spallone (.321, 33 RBI), Texeira was a Second Team All-C-USA selection.

“Those two kids have had great years. I’m pretty much speechless when I say that it’s a program changer, because it’s an understatement.”

A pair of losses at McNeese State during spring break started a run of seven losses in 11 games. Some lineup juggling helped reignite FIU, aside from going zero for three at Marshall (“We never play well during finals week,” Schumann said).

“They had to get some adversity. What’s resulted is our last two or weeks. They suffered some adversity. They didn’t fold the tents.”