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Softball Tops Georgia State, 7-2, to Wrap Black and Gold Classic

by Ryan Ladika

ORLANDO – In the debate between the long-term outlook and the possible short-term payoff, the long-term outlook for the UCF softball team won Sunday afternoon.

Senior right-hander Sarah Willis dazzled early in the Knights’ 7-2 win over the Georgia State Panthers at the UCF Softball Complex, beginning her afternoon with four perfect innings before being lifted in favor of the Knights’ relief corps to begin the top of the fifth inning.

“Everyone else is probably thinking, ‘What the heck are you thinking, Coach?’” quipped head coach Cindy Ball-Malone. “We set a plan before the game and we’re going to stick to it. We have a lot of good options and arms, and we need to get time for everybody and figure out who works well with who. The opponents we’re going to play the rest of the season, we’re going to need more than just Sarah Willis. She really understands that.”

The Ontario, California, native kept the Panthers (2-3) guessing throughout her second start of the young campaign, recording six outs on the ground to accompany six strikeouts, including a dominant fourth inning that saw her strike out Georgia State’s one-, two- and three-hole hitters consecutively.

“I felt really good today going out, the team had my back,” Willis said. “Being on the offensive side too was really nice, I got my first hit of the season. I felt really confident in the circle. Can’t ask for anything much better than that.”

In addition to recording that first knock, a one-out, second-inning single up the middle that aided the Knights (4-1) in tallying their first run of the game, Willis has picked up right where she left off from her dominant 2023 slate in the circle. The right-hander totaled a team-high 8.2 innings throughout the weekend Black and Gold Classic, yielding only one run on three hits while notching a team-high 13 strikeouts.

Transfer southpaw Ava Justman was the first arm called upon by Ball-Malone out of the bullpen, and she responded with her second straight scoreless appearance to begin the season, tossing two spotless frames with just two hits allowed and two strikeouts. Fellow transfer Sona Halajian and sophomore right-hander Katelyn Cochran combined to record the final three defensive outs for the Black and Gold.

Justman has now recorded 2.2 scoreless frames to begin her Knights tenure, following her UCF debut Friday against Seattle that saw the Northridge, California, native earn the first save of her collegiate career.

“Seeing Ava do what she did, she’s worked really hard,” Ball-Malone said of Justman. “She stayed here over the winter and trained all on her own and didn’t really take any time off. It shows; her velocity is up, her command is really nice, and now getting the movement to continue is what she’s working on. I’m proud of her and she’s fun to watch out there, how she connects with the defense.”

Fifth year utility player Jada Cody broke the ice offensively in the bottom of the second inning with a sacrifice fly to right before the UCF offense broke out with a four-run third.

First baseman Shannon Doherty cashed in her chance with the bases loaded, driving in pinch-runner Katie Burge and shortstop Aubrey Evans with a single to right field before freshman infielder Samantha Rey recorded the first RBI of her collegiate career in her first collegiate multi-hit game. UCF also took advantage of a Panthers error in scoring the third of its four runs in the frame.

“It was really important for us to come out as hard as we came out today and get back to us and get back to what we’re used to doing,” Doherty said. “We did a good job learning from our mistakes yesterday, capitalizing on some opportunities. I’m really proud of the team, really proud of this weekend.”

As a result of her two-run single, Doherty joins Kennedy Searcy (7), Stormy Kotzelnick (4) and Chloe Evans (4) as the fourth Knight to record at least four RBI throughout the Knights’ first five games, and Willis joined Angelina DeVoe (8 IP, 0 R) as the second Knights pitcher to eclipse eight frames in the circle.

“We have a really good team here,” Doherty continued. “We have some cleaning up to do and we still did well like we did. We have no idea what our potential is; we haven’t unlocked it yet, and we don’t want to unlock it until the end.”


The Knights conclude their season-opening six-game homestand with a Wednesday evening tilt with the visiting Liberty Flames. First pitch is slated for 6 p.m. from the UCF Softball Complex and will be streamed on ESPN+.


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