Feb. 1, 2010
By Sarah Tarasewicz
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - The UCF softball team is setting its sights on another Conference USA Championship and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2010, and has all the pieces of the puzzle to do just that.
The squad welcomes back the majority of its starting lineup from a 2009 season that saw the Knights post a 27-27 overall record and earn a No. 5 seeding in the C-USA Championship with an 11-12 league clip, while also returning head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie for her ninth season at the helm of the Black and Gold.
Joining Gillispie in the dugout will be second-year assistant Stephanie Best and newly appointed assistant Nicole Trimboli, both of which have spent time playing professionally in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league and will be a tremendous help in preparing the team for one of its most competitive schedules on record.
"I am thrilled to have two professional players on my staff this year," Gillispie said. "They are quality young ladies that have played at one of the highest levels possible in this game. They bring all of that knowledge and all of that excitement of the sport to our players and that will make us stronger as a team."
And stronger the team must be to play the schedule Gillispie put together for the Knights, as the skipper has her squad playing nine teams that were ranked in the USA Today/NFCA Top-25 at the conclusion of 2009. The schedule includes three teams that competed in the NCAA Women's College World Series, six teams that played in a NCAA Super Regional and 15 teams that participated in the NCAA Tournament last year.
"In order for C-USA to be recognized as a competitive conference and take more teams to the NCAA Tournament, we have to play a highly competitive schedule and play the best teams in the nation, and I think UCF has done its part this season," Gillispie said. "We play five teams that finished the 2009 season ranked in the top 10 in the final NCAA RPI and 13 that finished in the top 50. So it's pretty tough. But, the team knows it has to be ready to go up against these elite teams and I think that it will be."
In the Circle The first step on the journey to the postseason is defeating top competition, and it all starts with pitching, a position in which the Knights have an immense amount of experience.
In her fourth year as a starting pitcher for UCF, Ashleigh Cole (Pace, Fla.) looks to once again be a leader in the circle. The senior paced the Knights in every pitching category in 2009, posting a 17-8 record with a 2.42 ERA and 106 strikeouts.
Sharing starting nods with Cole in the circle will be fellow senior Kristina DeMello (Mead, Wash.). The hurler started 18 games last year with 26 appearances in her first season at UCF, adding an 8-8 record, a 2.69 ERA and 92 strikeouts.
"Both Ashleigh and Kristina got a season under their belts as our `go-to' pitchers last year, and they know what they need to do to step up this year and really take control of the conference," Gillispie said. "They are working so well together and understand that it is going to be a collective effort on their part to make our season a successful one. They both bring different abilities to the mound that we need, so with the two of them working at their best I think our opponents will have a hard time getting past them."
Also returning to the Knights' pitching staff is junior Diana Rojas (Miami, Fla.), who will be looked upon to throw some quality innings of relief. Joining Rojas in the bullpen will be a pair of newcomers in freshman Kazandra Holliday (Bremerton, Wash.) and junior Ashley Schmitt (Tampa, Fla.), a transfer from Santa Fe Community College.
"We are really going to be looking for Diana and Ashley to be ready to come in and give us quality innings of relief," Gillispie said. "Ashley really did a great job for us in the fall to earn a spot on the staff and has two years of collegiate pitching experience. As a freshman, Kazandra needs a little more experience under her belt, but I also see her being able to help us out this season."
Behind the Plate In order for the pitching staff to be successful, it must have a strong-minded and confident catcher behind the plate. Junior Abby McClain (Waterloo, Iowa) fills that role for the Knights, as she comes back in 2010 with renewed health and a hold on the role as the team's starter behind the dish. As a catcher and utility player a year ago, McClain earned a spot on the All-C-USA Second Team, as well as garnering C-USA All-Academic Team and ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District III Second Team honors.
"Abby is going to be our key player behind the dish," Gillispie said. "We will be looking at Abby to not only serve as a leader on the field, but also as a leader to the two newcomers that will share time with her in that position."
The two newcomers that will learn the intricacies of the trade from McClain are freshman Sam Soltis (Plantation, Fla.) and junior Lindsey Palulis (Orlando, Fla.), a transfer from Florida Community College at Jacksonville. Both of them have enjoyed great success prior to arriving on campus.
"I think that both Sam and Lindsey are going to learn a lot from watching what Abby has to offer," Gillispie said. "We are looking for both of them to be able to give us support behind the plate."
In the Dirt Also having an experienced leader to guide them is the Knights' infield, as third baseman and three-year starter Hillary Barrow (Miami, Fla.) returns to the diamond for her senior season. Barrow, a 2007 C-USA All-Freshman Team and 2008 C-USA Championship All-Tournament Team selection, matched the UCF single-season record with 16 doubles in 2009.
"Hillary is definitely going to be our team leader in the infield," Best said. "Her strength out there is her ability to keep everyone up and focused."
Barrow is joined in the infield by 2009 All-C-USA First Team selection Tiffany Lane (Moreno Valley, Calif.). Lane, who was also named to the Preseason All-C-USA Team for the second-straight year in 2010, tied for the NCAA Division I lead last season with eight triples and now sits at third all-time on the C-USA register with 15 career triples.
Sophomore Natalie Land (Mayo, Fla.) will once again hold down the starting spot at second base this season, after having been named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team as a rookie in 2009.
"With Tiffany and Natalie in the middle infield, we are not going to have many balls go through the infield," Best said. "As far as keeping the opposition's run production down, those two are going to be key for us to win games."
With the departure of Breanne Javier, the starting role at first base is open for the taking. Vying for the right corner of the infield will be a pair of newcomers, Arielle Palafox (Lakewood, Calif.) and Marissa Menendez (Tampa, Fla.).
"More than likely a newcomer will be filling the position at first base," Best said. "Both Arielle and Marissa have the opportunity to see time there. I think the decision as to who will get the start is going to be a matter of whose bat is hot at the time."
On the Grass The outfield will be patrolled by three veterans in 2010, as sophomore Vanessa Perez (San Diego, Calif.) and seniors Mary Helen Tyler (Marianna, Fla.) and Morgan Bullard (Columbia, S.C.) all return to their respective positions.
A C-USA All-Freshman Team honoree, Perez led the Knights with 13 sacrifice hits, while adding 37 hits, five stolen bases and a .329 on-base percentage as the squad's starting center fielder in 2009.
Tyler returns to her starting spot in right field in her final season, while fellow veteran Bullard looks to hold down the left field job after suffering an injury in the first week of play last year.
"We feel very confident with Vanessa in the outfield again this year," Gillispie said. "She and Mary Helen were our anchors out there last year. And with Morgan healthy and strong this season, we are looking at her to patrol left field for us."
Three newcomers could also see time in the outfield this season, with junior Tawny Swan (Gilbert, Ariz.), Menendez and Schmitt all having experience in the grass.
All the pieces are on the table for the Knights to make a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2010, and with a competitive schedule, veteran leaders and an experienced coaching staff, the squad is looking for those pieces to fall into place.
For the latest news on the Knights, log on to www.UCFAthletics.com - the official site for UCF varsity sports. The site, which also contains ticket and Golden Knights Club donor information, is also the home of UCF's new online apparel store. Also visit www.UCFPhotos.com, the exclusive fan source for UCF action sports pictures.