RV Softball Wins Seventh Straight, Sweeps Homestand with Doubleheader Sweep vs. Rutgers

ORLANDO, Fla. – The proverb central to the identity of the 2023 (RV) UCF softball team since before the season's first pitch was thrown has been the group's consistent goal to 'Protect the Queen,' or to do whatever it takes to defend and support whoever is in the circle at any given time, in other words.

The Knights certainly took the message to heart throughout their Tuesday doubleheader against the visiting Rutgers Scarlet Knights, as a plethora of dazzling defensive gems combined with timely hitting and heads-up baserunning supported a pair of complete-game victories by Grace Jewell and Sarah Willis in UCF's 3-0 and 5-1 wins.

The two victories stretched the Knights' (17-13, 0-0 AAC) current win streak to seven straight games following UCF's perfect 5-0 showing throughout the weekend UCF Round Robin tournament hosted by the Knights.

"The heartbeat is in the circle with our queens," said head coach Cindy Ball-Malone. "They did a great job, and we're starting to find our rhythm as a team behind our pitchers. I love how they commanded the game, and it helps us a lot when they can just continue to collect outs and get us back in the dugout."

Offense was at a premium throughout UF's twin-bill opener Tuesday, so the team relied on Jewell in the circle and exceptional defensive work behind her. The right-hander had everything working during her 15th appearance of the season, tossing a seven-inning complete-game shutout for the second time in her last three appearances and bringing a no-hitter into the top of the seventh inning.

With the support of an Olivia Elliott RBI groundout, a Micaela Macario bloop RBI double to shallow left field and a safety squeeze play by shortstop Jasmine Williams that forced home the team's third run, Jewell seized the team's early momentum and never looked back.

She retired the first 11 hitters she faced, eight of which came via strikeout or groundout, and shook off the first Scarlet Knights (17-10, 0-0 Big Ten) baserunner that reached on an error in the fourth with perfect fifth and sixth innings.

The Chesapeake, Virginia, native trotted back to the circle to begin the seventh inning having allowed just the single baserunner and recorded her 11th out on the ground before yielding a clean single to left field, the first Rutgers hit of the game. She responded with her fourth strikeout of the game before surrendering another softly-hit single to shallow right-center field.

Center fielder Johneisha Rowe came to her rescue, reaching the ball quickly before firing a perfect strike to third base to cut down the Rutgers baserunner attempting to go first-to-third on the play for the final out of the game.

"I was just throwing to the batters and getting my defense ground balls, and just wanted to get [everyone] back into the dugout," Jewell said. "Doing a lot of scouting is very important, but we take it one game at a time, so we try not to get ahead of ourselves. [We take it] one game at a time and one pitch at a time."

The game-ending assist by Rowe capped a contest bursting at the seams with defensive highlights. Twice, a sinking line drive was snared by a diving Kennedy Searcy in left field foul territory, once in the top of the fourth inning and again in the sixth.

Freshman utility infielder Aubrey Evans also laid out for a ground ball destined for the right field grass in the top of the fifth inning, preserving Jewell's no-hit bid with a dive that was just far enough to her left to corral the ball.

"I haven't played outfield since my freshman year, not much, but I'm starting to get the hang of it again," Searcy said. "One of our things is 'Protect the Queen,' so I've been working really hard to make sure I can get to those balls. Just making sure I protect Grace when she's up there because she's working really hard for us, and I know I have to make the hard plays so she can get the strikeouts for us."

Since allowing five runs, four of them earned, in her appearance in the Knights' Judi Garman Classic finale against Cal State Fullerton March 4, Jewell has tossed 17 consecutive scoreless innings in appearances against Toledo, Kennesaw State and Rutgers, yielding just seven hits and striking out nine in that span while recording a pair of complete-game shutouts.

Willis picked up where Jewell left off in the nightcap, yielding only one unearned run in a career-high seven innings of work with only three hits allowed and seven strikeouts.

She retired seven of the first eight batters she faced, and after allowing the lone Scarlet Knights tally in the top of the third, set down 12 of the final 13 hitters she faced the rest of the way.

The reigning two-time American Athletic Conference Honor Roll electee has continued to build upon her stretch of dominance over the last few weeks, as in her last nine appearances (five starts) since Feb. 23, Willis has posted a team-low 0.59 ERA (35.2 IP, 3 ER) accompanied by 38 strikeouts and a .155 batting average-against.

"Sarah pitched a lot of different pitches," said Carson Frier, Willis' catcher Tuesday evening. "We did a lot of scouting this week, and we knew what to throw to each batter. She used all her five or six pitches and all her different speeds that she has and worked the count for each batter. Everything was different."

UCF's offense gained a bit more traction as the night wore on as well. Williams, who recorded her second three-hit game in her last five games and her fourth multi-hit game in her last six, produced an early RBI single to tie the game at one in the bottom of the third, and right fielder Chloe Evans came through with her team-leading fourth triple of the season in the fifth that staked the Knights to a 4-1 lead.

"It feels good," Ball-Malone continued. "We're obviously continuing to keep getting better and sharpening our tools. That's exactly the message I continue to talk to them about. If we think that we have it or got it, then we'll be done. We're still learning those pieces, but we have to create those opportunities for ourselves."
The Knights will utilize the next two days to recover and prepare for a challenging five-game road trip that includes contests against a ranked opponent in each game. In taking part in the OSU Mizuno Classic in Stillwater, Oklahoma, this weekend, the Knights will match up against the 22nd-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils twice, and will again face a team ranked second in the nation in the Oklahoma State Cowgirls three more times. The road trip represents the final stretch of games before the commencement of conference play March 24.