John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Softball Ready to Take Its Game to the Next Level

May 19, 2010

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Considering the range of emotions that her team had to endure last weekend, it was only natural for UCF softball coach Renee Luers-Gillispie to wonder about the mental state of her team this week.

But there are no such concerns about how a UCF team that has played well in big games all season will handle this weekend in the NCAA Regional Tournament in Gainesville.

UCF advanced all the way to the Conference USA title game last Saturday, but frustratingly lost to East Carolina despite not even allowing an earned run. As if that sorrow wasn't enough misery for UCF, the team was served a double dose of frustration upon arriving at the airport the next morning at 5 a.m.

"The whole way back to the hotel after the game and at dinner we were all pretty depressed," third baseman Hillary Barrow said. "And then when we went to the airport the next morning, we saw all of the ECU players checking in with their championship hats and shirts on, and it was like we had to relive it all again."

But things started looking up for the Knights on Sunday night when UCF received the first at-large NCAA tournament berth in school history. It is a true testament to the growth of the program, the power of C-USA softball and a nod to the rugged schedule that Luers-Gillispie purposely put together to test her team. But even the NCAA berth tested the patience of a Knights team looking for a reprieve to keep their season alive.

"I was kind of over (losing the C-USA title game) because I knew we'd get a bid anyway," standout shortstop Tiffany Lane said. "But getting to the airport and seeing ECU, that was ... awkward. And for the NCAA announcement, it took them about four pages to get to us. We were excited and anticipating it, and then our name didn't show up. It got to the second page and then the third page. Finally, when it did show up, we were all yelling."

The Knights (35-21) will face Florida International (36-19) on Friday in the four-team, double-elimination regional in Gainesville. Top-seeded Florida (43-8) and Bethune-Cookman (32-22) are on the other side of the bracket.

UCF is quite familiar with the University of Florida's Katie Seashole Pressly Softball Stadium. The Knights will be playing a NCAA Regional there for the third time, having advanced to the regional final there as recently as 2008. UCF lost to FIU last season, so their attention is merely on the game ahead.

"Once we got accepted into the regionals, our focus jumped into what we needed to do next," Luers-Gillispie said. "They were so pumped up to have the opportunity to go into the regionals again - even though we're going to Florida again. We've very familiar with their field and we've won on their field. We haven't seen FIU in over a year, but it will be a battle. Both our records are the same, but their batting average is better than ours. But our girls are scrappy and will be ready. We'll be focused on FIU before looking ahead to Florida. We had that same mentality going into the C-USA tournament."

The Knights are here now because of a mentality to play and beat the best teams in the country this season. UCF faced 12 NCAA tournament teams this season, earning huge victories against Alabama, Tennessee, Nebraska, Ohio State, UAB and Bethune-Cookman. Beating the Lady Vols in the first game of the season let a UCF team loaded with five seniors and six juniors know that all things were possible this season.

"How many teams say they beat Tennessee and Alabama in one season? If we can beat them, we can play with anybody," said Barrow, UCF's leader this season in doubles (11), home runs (five) and RBI (38). "Beating Tennessee the first game of the year was huge for us. All of those top pitchers, we've had our best hitting games against them. The better the pitching the better we hit."

Luers-Gillispie said she has the utmost confidence in her Knights that they will handle the pressures of playing in the regional tournament. UCF got past a rough stretch in the schedule in midseason and played its best softball down the stretch.

Several players wrote the letters, "OKC" in their gloves this season, signifying the site of the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. Those dreams are still within reach for a UCF team that has shown resiliency all season, Luers-Gillispie said.

"Halfway through the season we didn't know which direction we were taking things because we were so up and down. We had some bad losses and some really good wins. How do you settle in and find that mix?" she said. "But, we won eight of the last nine games and started to find the consistency at the end of the season.

"This team just has that drive to stay in it and play as long as we can and live to play another day, as we say," the coach continued. "We just want to keep this team together as long as we can and keep playing."


John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.