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Softball No-Hits Jacksonville in 9-1 Win on Autism Awareness and Acceptance Night

by Ryan Ladika

ORLANDO – Though the UCF softball team’s midweek matchup against Jacksonville already carried special meaning even before the squad stepped foot on the dirt, the Knights went out and made a bit of history for good measure.

Donning specially made socks, pregame warm-up shirts and helmet decals in honor of the program’s second Autism Awareness and Acceptance game, UCF showed out for its packed crowd at the UCF Softball Complex, recording the 23rd no-hitter in program history in a five-inning 9-1 run-rule win over the Dolphins Wednesday evening.

“We were playing for something bigger than ourselves,” said left-hander Ava Justman. “The way we, right off the bat, came ready to win. It’s autism awareness month, and I thought it was huge for us to spread that awareness and show that, yes, we are playing softball, but there’s more to life than just softball.”

On the strength of the pregame emotions accompanying the evening’s theme and a prolific night by the Knights offense, Justman and right-hander Sona Halajian stole the show on the field, teaming up to throw the third combined no-hitter in program history.

The pair’s effort also ensures that the Knights will have thrown at least one no-hitter for the fourth consecutive season, as the program has now seen six since the commencement of the 2021 campaign.

“Everyone was locked in, we were all looking at each other,” said head coach Cindy Ball-Malone. “We did the whole thing where we didn’t talk about it, but we knew. It’s very good for our program, our pitching staff and our queens. I loved how excited they were and how much they celebrated it and each other.”

A pair of walks and a hit-by-pitch were all that stood between the duo and perfection, as Halajian and Justman threw three perfect innings before the Dolphins managed the lone three baserunners of the evening between the fourth and fifth innings.

Halajian was tabbed for the start by Ball-Malone, and a highlight-reel diving catch in left field foul territory by Stormy Kotzlenick on the first pitch of the game perhaps hinted at the type of evening UCF had in store for the 729 in attendance.

The San Anselmo, California, native quickly dispatched of the next eight consecutive Jacksonville hitters she faced, inducing three flyouts, one strikeout and five groundouts through her first three innings of work.

“I was just trying my best to bring what we were working on in the bullpen out into the game. I had one focus in mind, and did my best to execute that every pitch,” Halajian said.

The Dolphins managed a run in the top of the fourth inning on the heels of back-to-back leadoff walks, but Halajian limited the damage to just one by way of another flyout to Kotzelnick in left field and a pair of groundouts.

Ball-Malone called upon Justman to record the final three outs, and she did so with a pair of pop outs and a strikeout in the top of the fifth inning to seal UCF’s first no-hitter since Sarah Willis’ seven-inning perfect game against Houston April 28, 2023.

“We knew that we were going to bring a couple of pitchers in,” Ball-Malone said of her staff’s pregame plan. “When Sona had the perfect game, I thought ‘this is ruining my plan.’ When somebody got on, I thought we could still go for the no-hitter. I wanted Ava to get some innings, she’s been working so hard. It’s tough, even when you’re up eight runs, to go in there in that position to go and secure the no-hitter for your teammate.”

Halajian’s effort marked her fourth with at least four innings pitched this spring, all of which have seen her surrender two or fewer runs and no more than two walks.

UCF’s offense came alive in the second and third innings in support of its two pitchers, plating five in the second and four more in the third to clinch its seventh run-rule victory of the season.

Halajian helped herself out with an RBI single to plate UCF’s first run of the game in the second, and after Kotzelnick scored from first on a heads-up baserunning play following a Sierra Humphreys single in the frame, Shannon Doherty slugged her second home run of the season out to straightaway center field to balloon UCF’s advantage to five runs entering the top of the third inning.

“I was just looking for my pitch to drive,” Doherty said. “I knew I just missed it my at-bat before, so I was trying to make quick adjustments Coach Bear talked me through. I got the one I wanted and I drove it, and it worked out.”

Humphreys added an RBI single around a bases-loaded walk drawn by Aubrey Evans in the home half of the third, and a Dolphins passed ball and a run-scoring groundout by Willis pushed the Knights’ lead to 9-0 after three innings of play.

“It speaks to, not only the cause of awareness and acceptance, but how Knight nation is so welcoming to everyone in our community and the support that we have, and how happy they were to celebrate,” Ball-Malone added of the importance of the game’s theme.


The Knights look to bring their winning ways back on the road for the commencement of a three-game set against the Houston Cougars at Cougar Softball Stadium in Houston, Texas Friday evening. First pitch is set for 7 p.m. April 12, and will be streamed live on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.


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