March 9, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Rather than simply revel in the significance of recently winning her 600th career game, UCF softball coach Renee Luers-Gillispie instead chose to spread the joy around to others. And if the coach had her way, the prized ball from that victory would be chopped up into hundreds of tiny pieces and given to all the players who have made 600 wins possible through the years.
An impressive 600-453-1 in 18 years as a coach and 348-249-1 in 10 years of pioneering UCF's softball program, Luers-Gillispie realizes that much of her success is due to the talented players who have made life easier for her. Her legacy, she insisted, is the players who have competed at UCF, not the records set.
And Luers-Gillispie can't wait until March 26 for UCF's Alumni Day when she will get the opportunity to thank a lot of the players who made many of her wins possible through the years.
"I'm most proud of the players who have gone through our program through the years,'' Luers-Gillispie said. "We're bringing a lot of them back and honoring them (on Alumni Day). We wouldn't have this facility if it weren't for those players who first started with nothing. That first fall, we were playing on the intramural fields and dressing out of the back of cars.
"Those are the people you want to thank for putting the energy, time and commitment into the program,'' she continued. "You're more proud of the players who helped you get here than the almost 350 wins here and the 600 overall. They are why it's all happened, so I as a coach try to keep my sights on and realize why I'm here.''
With a pitching staff that's been decimated by injuries, Luers-Gillispie has had to do some of her best coaching work this season. At 7-16, the Knights have hit the ball well enough and played solid defense, but the pitching woes have led to plenty of struggles. The Knights pitching staff is striking out just two batters a game on average, making it difficult to establish much consistency.
The hope is that steady improvement by Lacey Dinney, a 5-foot-11 junior from Canada, and a return to health from junior Mary Huff will help the Knights get on track by the start of Conference USA play on Saturday at the UCF Softball Complex against UTEP.
"Our bats are looking better, and defensively we're in a solid place right now, but this game is pitching and if you don't have a pitcher there it's a long season,'' Luers-Gillispie said. "Seeing Lacey pitch well and getting some others back from being injured will help. We have a pitching staff, but they've been hurt and it's just about getting though that injury phase now.''
The hitting of Allie Jest, Natalie Land and Abby McClain has kept the team in games this season. Jest is riding a 13-game hitting streak - the third longest in school history - after pounding out five hits in a doubleheader on Tuesday. Land, UCF's grittiest defensive player, is hitting .347 with two home runs, five triples and three doubles. And McClain, a senior, has been the Knights' top run-producer with a .302 average, five home runs and 18 RBI.
But because of the pitching woes, the Knights have surrendered many leads, resulting in several heart-breaking losses. Dinney's 4-4 record is encouraging and she recently pitched well in both parts of two games of a doubleheader for the first time in her life.
Luers-Gillispie said that her team must make a mindset change to turn around this season. And she admitted that she's coaching harder than ever to make that happen.
"You have to work harder than ever now. When you get into that losing mode and players get where they don't know how to fight to win, that's what we're battling right now,'' she said. "They play hard, but they don't understand how to kick somebody's teeth in. There have been so many games where we've had teams down and we've let them come back. That killer instinct is the mentality we haven't had this year. We've played hard, but we haven't had that mentality needed to win these games.''
The way the Knights won last week for Luers-Gillispie's 600th win was a fitting tribute to the coach's fighting spirit and positive attitude. Down 1-0, UCF rallied to tie the game and then came through in a big way late in the afternoon for four runs in the sixth inning.
"That's why I color my hair,'' Luers-Gillispie joked. "Abby (McClain) came up big in that game (with the tying triple) because she's the kind of kid who is going to find a way to help her team win the game. I want that fight in her to spread throughout the team now. The way we won, every coach is looking for that. That's the growing you're looking for and it's a moment we can point to the rest of the season. You need those kinds of games to build and show them that they can handle it.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.