May 13, 2010
By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Everywhere she looks these days, UCF softball coach Renee Luers-Gillispie is reminded of the stirring run that her Knights went on back in 2008 to win the Conference USA Championship.
And now Luers-Gillispie is hoping that all signs are pointing to the Knights winning a second league title in three years. The tournament starts today at 2:30 p.m. ET for the third-seeded Knights (33-20) against sixth-seeded UTEP (31-23), the same team that UCF swept just last weekend. Even that is a reminder back to the start of the 2008 run.
"You worry about having to go three games against a team and beating them and having to go against them again, but we did the same thing in 2008 against Southern Miss," Luers-Gillispie said. "We played them the final series of the regular season and then played them in the first game of the tournament. It just feels like a little déjà vu going on here. We're 16-7 with our conference record and that's what we were in 2008, we're third (seeded) going in and we're back in Houston. There just feels like there's a déjà vu to this whole weekend."
Tiffany Lane, Hillary Barrow, Ashleigh Cole, Morgan Bullard, Abby McClain and Diana Rojas were a part of that 2008 championship squad. That group composes much of the core of this team, and the hope is that the experience from two years earlier will play off over the next three days in Houston.
"I think that experience will help us out a lot," said Barrow, who led the Knights this season in RBI (36), home runs (five) and doubles (10). "Our juniors and seniors can let the other players know that they have to be loud and confident. I think having been there before will be a big advantage for us."
When the Knights were last champions of Conference USA, Lane - the standout shortstop - was the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. This season she earned a spot on the All-C-USA first team for the second-consecutive year. She set a league record with 21 career triples, while ranking sixth nationally with six triples this season. Lane led the Knights in triples, total bases (68) and slugging percentage (.479), while ranking second in batting average (.310), runs scored (25), hits (44), doubles (nine), RBI (18) and stolen bases (12).
She calls the 2008 championship the best moment of her career, a moment she hopes to recreate starting today.
"I'm 100 percent confident that we can take first in this tournament," Lane said. "Every time I play in Houston or anywhere in Texas my mom reminds me of that time when we won. We played that game like it was any other game, and that's how we have to approach this tournament."
Cole, a senior, gives the Knights a dominant pitcher capable of ruling the tournament. She was 21-12 this season, making her only the fourth pitcher in school history to win 20 or more wins in a season. She also had a 1.53 ERA, five shutouts and 149 strikeouts in 224.2 innings pitched.
Luers-Gillispie likes the momentum that the Knights are taking into tournament play. UCF won its final six regular-season games, including the final three against UTEP last weekend.
The Knights traveled from El Paso to Houston earlier this week, spending much of the past six days together. The team shopped at The Galleria area of Houston, went to a movie together and visited an aquarium - things that Luers-Gillispie said has helped the team "bond more now than at any point of the season."
The hope is that chemistry will help the Knights once again win the C-USA crown.
"I think our chances are great," Luers-Gillispie said. "Last weekend we had to sweep to have a chance at winning the regular season title. East Carolina had to lose two of three and Tulsa had to lose one, but they both did their part. But we did our part, too, and that tells me that we're ready to go."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.