For Softball Seniors' Sake, `We Don't Want the Season to End'

May 9, 2012

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By John Denton, Knights Insider

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - RPI projections suggest that the winner of Thursday's UCF-Houston game in the Conference USA softball tournament likely will earn a spot in the NCAA Regionals next week.

But UCF head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie has an even more personal reason for wanting to win the C-USA tourney opener and extend the season.

"I told them at practice that I'm just not ready for my seniors to go yet," Luers-Gillispie said. "We just really have to keep working hard to keep them around as long as we can. We don't want the season to end."

It's understandable why Luers-Gillispie and the fourth-seeded Knights (39-16 overall and 15-9 in C-USA) don't want to see seniors such as Natalie Land, Vanessa Perez, Ali Schmidt and Tawny Swan leave the program.

Land, UCF's gritty shortstop, will go down as one of the best players in school history. In addition to being on the brink of possibly breaking the C-USA record for stolen bases in a career, Land leads UCF in average (.341), runs (51), hits (62), triples (five) and stolen bases (41), and she's second in RBI (26).

Perez, Land's closest friend the past four seasons, has hit .288 this season with seven doubles and 22 RBI. And Schmidt provided tremendous pitching depth by going 13-4 with a 1.61 ERA.

"Vanessa has been with us all four years, and she and Natalie have basically been connected at the hip. They don't go anywhere or do anything without the other," Luers-Gillispie said. "Natalie has done so much for this program, not just on the field but also academically by opening up doors in the sports medicine department. She's been like a pioneer in many ways. It's going to be tough to replace her and the other seniors."

UCF, which beat No. 3 Florida in April, heads into the C-USA opener with loads of confidence after sweeping fifth-seeded Houston in late April. The Knights won the three games 4-1, 4-0 and 6-3 by getting six hits and a stolen base in the series from Land. Luers-Gillispie knows what the power of one victory could do for the Knights.

"I feel like we've got a good opportunity (to get to the NCAA Tournament) if we get through this first game with Houston. They are No. 43, and we're 41, so it's a good RPI game for us," Luers-Gillispie said. "If we win, we'll have 40 wins and be in the semifinals, and I think that will give us a good shot at being in the regionals."

There's no one the Knights would rather have their fate riding on than fabulous freshman Mackenzie Audas, who had a knack for tossing stellar games in big moments. In addition to shutting out Florida and tossing a no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman, Audas was 21-9 with a whopping 254 strikeouts in 215 innings pitched. She has a shot at being named a Freshman All-American in the coming weeks.

With a well-rested Audas and some production from the middle of the order, the Knights believe they can win on Thursday and extend the season for the senior class.

"How we played against Houston two weeks ago, that should give us confidence that we've hit Houston before and we know what we can do," Luers-Gillispie said. "We talked in practice about how this is our championship season and everything that we worked for comes down to these games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We have to take advantage of this championship season, and I feel like the focus is on the right things right now.''