May 12, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Down to just 12 active players because of a season full of injuries and illnesses, UCF's softball team has had to dramatically alter the aggressive nature with which it usually plays. But head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie is confident that her Knights can still make some noise in the Conference USA Championship with Natalie Land (Mayo, Fla.) leading the offense and Diana Rojas (Miami, Fla.) in the pitcher's circle.
Sixth-seeded UCF (21-31, 11-13 C-USA) likes its chances of upsetting third-seeded UAB (38-16 and 17-6) because of Rojas' mastery of the Blazers earlier this season and because Land was a strong candidate for C-USA's Player of the Year award.
Rojas threw the first shutout of her career against UAB back on March 26 in a 6-0 defeat of the Blazers in Orlando. UAB ultimately took two of three in the series and knocked Rojas out of the game a day later, but the Knights are hoping she can summon her magic from the March 26 performance that was the finest of her career. That day she struck out three and walked just two while scattering nine hits.
"I think Diana will do a great job against them," said Luers-Gillispie, whose Knights play UAB at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. "She went back and watched the second game against them and she realized she wasn't hitting her spots as well as she should have. She'll bring more focus and be sharp this time against a good hitting team."
Land, a junior second baseman, has kept the Knights offense afloat by being one of C-USA's most productive hitters at the plate this season. In addition to being the team's best fielder, she also ranks first on the team in batting average (.361), doubles (seven), triples (five), hits (53) and slugging percentage (.537). She's also added three home runs and 14 RBI.
"Natalie has worked so hard over the summer and the season to get where she is now," Luers-Gillispie said. "She's one of the hardest workers on the team and she's put in the extra hours in the weight room, which has helped her out and given her confidence. She works hard at it and of all the players she deserves what she's getting this year because of the time she's put in. It's nice now seeing her get the accolades and the mentions as one of the best players in the conference because she deserves it."
Land, who rarely leaves the field with a clean uniform because of her willingness to give up her body to dive for balls or slide into bases, said just being in contention for the C-USA Player of the Year award was a tremendous honor. She was named to the All-CUSA First Team for the second-straight season and was chosen along with teammate Abby McClain (Waterloo, Iowa) to the C-USA All-Academic Team for a second-consecutive year earlier in the week.
"(Winning the C-USA Player of the Year award) would have been amazing. This year there are so many great players and just to be in the running was amazing to me,'' Land said. "Just the opportunity to get out there every game and help the team is what's important to me because I don't really look at (individual awards), to be honest. But being in the running for that award was an extra perk for me.''
Luers-Gillispie hit major milestones this season by winning her 600th game overall and her 350th in her 10th season at UCF, but the year has been a difficult one as the Knights have tried to rebuild while also weathering several major injuries. McClain, one of the cornerstone players on the team, has battled a back injury for weeks and can no longer catch. Also, pitcher Haley Douglas missed most of the season with a case of mononucleosis.
Oftentimes, the Knights have been left with one or two players on the bench in reserve, and Luers-Gillispie has had to dramatically tone down her attacking style of coaching in an attempt to avoid injuries.
"In some ways all that we have been through has toughened us up. But in some ways, we're still worried about players getting hurt because we basically have one person on the bench," Luers-Gillispie said. "Strategy-wise, we've had to change in that maybe we're not running somebody that we know we should. And that's tough because one play or one run could be the difference in a ball game. So we've had to be conservative.
"In other ways, our team has had to bond together and rely on one another more because they know this is it to get it done in games," she continued. "We pick each other up and keep each other up. We just have to be careful at times and not stretch plays (into doubles) or steal bases."
Land, who has tried to become more of a vocal leader this season, admitted the roller coaster nature of the season has taken a toll on the team. But she still thinks that the Knights are poised for a big finish in the C-USA tournament.
"There were a lot of ups and downs and just as soon as we'd get something going somebody would get injured. It was a challenge all year," she said. "We played really well at times, but then we wouldn't have our best performance. We couldn't find that consistency and it was tough, but we've put that past us. We know that anything is possible in the conference tournament. We're very confident going against UAB. If we had to play anyone, we're glad that it's UAB. They beat us in the regular season, but we won that first game (6-0). So we know we can beat them if we play up to our potential."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.