After putting up a program-best winning percentage in the 2014-15 season, the 2015-16 Knights came into one of their toughest schedules yet hoping for similar numbers and more.
The Knights faced nine nationally ranked teams, destroying No. 5 Alabama on Feb. 12 but falling short to the other eight, including top teams such as No. 3 Auburn and No. 4 LSU in the following weeks.
The No. 25 Knights then started their transition into playing less grinding teams with an 8-2 shutout against Yale on Feb. 26 at the 2016 Diamond Nine Citrus Classic Collegiate games hosted by ESPN Wide World of Sports. They racked up two more wins that weekend, defeating Syracuse and Charlotte.
Hitting the only homerun for the Knights at the Citrus Classic, senior Jessica Ujvari recognizes the strengths the team possesses and knows what the team needs to do for success in the remaining part of the season.
“[I need to] keep having quality at bats like I did the first game, not chasing after anything that’s not in my zone and not letting anything uncontrollable take over,” Ujvari said. “Hitting how I know I can hit and just trusting in my teammates and knowing that when they are on base, let me be the way to score them or vise-versa, when I’m on the base, let them score me. “
Freshman Taylor Bell, who drove in two RBIs off of her first collegiate hit in the game against Yale, said the team had a strategy when entering a difficult tournament with other nationally ranked teams.
“Coming into this tournament, we wanted to grow because last tournament we just wanted to do better and do anything we could to win,” Bell said. “We were hitting the ball, we all came together as a team and we had the energy going. It was just teamwork.”
Head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie singled out Bell as an asset in the team’s first win to break its losing streak earlier in the season.
“The second game with Yale, I felt like what Taylor Bell brought to that game was a big, big plus,” Gillispie said. “The energy we talk about a lot as far as the kind of energy that you bring, the cause of energy, the focus, the heart that you bring to these games is so important, and I didn’t feel like we had that in the first game [of the tournament].”
Bell’s large amount of playing time might be the antidote to a shaky start, Gillispie added.
However, Bell isn’t the only key to the Knights’ most recent success. Freshmen, such as catcher Autumn Gillespie, are players who, earlier on in the year were identified by Gillispie as being a big part of the wins the program is accumulating, thus filling the shoes that were left empty due to an exodus of seniors.
“Autumn behind the plate, with that arm of hers, even the bat was a surprise this year. She stepped up and did a great job as an offensive threat, too. She’s been a big plus for us,” Gillispie said.
Freshman Cassady Brewer has been another asset to the team.
“We looked at Brewer who played second base, and then third base in the second game. [She] has a lot of pop in it,” Gillispie said. “She has quality at-bats. You may not see [it] in the batting average, but her quality at bats are important, and she’s doing what she needs to do and what we’re expecting out of her.”
Coming off a remarkable 50-9 season, Gillispie welcomes the daunting 2016 schedule with a positive mindset.
“I don’t think you try to match your record,” Gillispie said. “I don’t even think we had the idea that we would be hitting 50 wins last year. You just play each game, and try to improve in each game, and you’re focusing on what you’re going to be accomplishing in post-season. That’s been our goal from day one. That’s why we played so many tough teams.”
Playing top teams, she said, will help in preparation for the future.
“It takes its slumps because now you don’t have that win-loss record that you are wanting, but it does prepare us for the tougher competition we get in the conference and that’s our ultimate goal is the conference post-season,” Gillispie said.
The Knights will continue to host teams at the UCF Softball Complex starting again on March 4, when UCF will take on Middle Tennessee State and La Salle. The following day, the Knights will face South Dakota and LIU Brooklyn. UCF is 7-8 and, at the time of publication, riding a three-game win streak.
Amanda Schoep is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.