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Softball Bests Kansas, 7-1, in Big 12 Conference Debut

Willis drives in two, throws seven-inning complete game, Cody hits 35th career home run

by Ryan Ladika

ORLANDO – Respond and recover.

The way the UCF softball team finished its inaugural conference game as a member of the Big 12, Kansas’ brief first-inning lead became a distant, fleeting memory.

“In the last inning of the Stetson game and the first inning here, we’ve seen response and recovery, and that’s been great to see,” said head coach Cindy Ball-Malone. “I love how we are play, recover, play in those moments and having each other’s backs, because that’s what it’s going to take in the Big 12.”

The Knights (13-7, 1-0 Big 12) compiled one of their more complete, all-around games this spring in their Big 12 debut Friday night, snapping the visiting Jayhawks’ (13-6-1, 0-1 Big 12) 10-game win streak with a convincing 7-1 victory at the UCF Softball Complex.

In besting Kansas, the Knights not only put to a quick end the visitors’ double-digit win streak, they hung their seven-spot on an opposing southpaw who brought with her a 28-inning scoreless streak dating back to the Jayhawks’ 12-0 win over UTSA Feb. 22. Right-hander Sarah Willis dazzled in the circle on the other end of the ball as well, fanning a career-high-tying nine Kansas batters in recording her first seven-inning complete game of the season.

It all came together at the perfect time for UCF, which won its 10th consecutive conference-opener dating back to the squad’s 1-0 win over Memphis March 22, 2014. In continuation of the symmetry, Willis was also in the circle for the Knights’ 2023 conference-opener against then-No. 22 Wichita State March 24, and just like Friday evening against Kansas, the then-junior threw seven innings while yielding only one run on four hits to the Shockers.

“We played some really solid softball on all sides of the ball,” Ball-Malone continued. “I saw our leadership, I saw our seasoned vets really come to play and trust themselves, and have some fun too. Sarah threw a great game, they played awesome defense behind her. Some really good hitting moments off a great pitcher as well. The Knights love challenges.”

UCF drew up an immediate counterpunch to the Jayhawks’ early lead, a first-inning solo home run by catcher Lyric Moore. The squad sent 10 hitters to the plate in the home half of the first, scoring four times on four hits, including a trio of doubles, to complete the opening frame with a three-run advantage.

The Knights’ first-inning fireworks included a line drive run-scoring double into the left field corner by right fielder Chloe Evans, a two-run double off the left-center field wall by catcher Ashleigh Griffin, and a bases-loaded walk drawn by Willis in the nine-hole to erase Kansas’ early momentum.

“It’s just team offense,” said third baseman Jada Cody. “We knew that if we got a few runs for Sarah, she was going to be dominant in the circle. We love feeding off of her and her energy. We knew we just needed to give her a few runs so she could pitch her game.”

The Black and Gold’s four first-inning scores proved more than enough for Willis, who settled into her groove from the second inning on. After she allowed a pair of hits in the first, the senior right-hander notched a pair of strikeouts in a perfect second, two more in the fourth and helped turn a crucial 1-6-3 double play to stamp out a Jayhawks threat in the fifth.

Willis’ efforts only strengthened with each pitch, completing her evening with four consecutive strikeouts from the last out of the sixth and into the seventh to match her career-high of nine she set against Fresno State in the 2023 Judi Garman Classic, a contest UCF won 1-0 March 2.

“Every single (team on campus) is just trying to show the Big 12 what UCF is about, and that’s what we were trying to do,” Willis said. “Just having the team behind my back, constantly being in my ear, telling me, ‘Good pitch.’ They’re talking on defense or in the dugout, cheering and being hype. This all contributes to me getting in a rhythm and going for the team.”

Though she didn’t need it, the Knights’ offense rattled off three more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, beginning with Willis’ own RBI single up the middle, marking her second RBI of the evening, and punctuated by Jada Cody’s two-run home run, her third of the season and the 35th of her career.

With her two RBI at the dish, Willis notched the first game of her three-plus year career that saw her record multiple RBI at the plate in the same game in which she also threw at least seven innings in the circle.

“Afterwards, (the home run) was the only true hard hit of the game off of her,” Ball-Malone said of Willis. “I have to hand it to her, she got better as things went on. I told her to be a shark, and she did just that.”


The Knights look to clinch their first series win in Big 12 Conference play in a Saturday matinee tilt with the Jayhawks. First pitch is slated for 2 p.m. from the UCF Softball Complex March 9, and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.


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