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Willis Spins Six-Inning One-Hitter in Softball's 9-0 Win at Houston

by Ryan Ladika

Houston, Texas – It didn’t get any easier for the Houston Cougars in their most recent try against Sarah Willis.

Facing Houston for the first time since she was named National Division I Wilson/NFCA Pitcher of the Week for her efforts against the Cougars last season, Willis picked up right where she left off.

The Knights right-hander turned in another dominant performance in the circle, flirting with her second career no-hitter and spinning a six-inning one-hit complete-game shutout to kick off UCF’s three-game set in Houston, bolstered by another prolific performance by the Black and Gold’s offense in the squad’s 9-0 win Friday evening.

The winning effort brought the Knights back to even in Big 12 Conference play at 8-8 and eight games north of .500 overall at 23-15, while also pushing UCF’s win streak to a season-long seven straight and giving the squad its ninth victory in its last 10 games.

“She was pitching really well; she just missed a few calls here and there, and that’s what drew the walks,” said head coach Cindy Ball-Malone of Willis. “As far as how she managed those and got stronger as the game went on, I’m really impressed with how she was moving the ball and using different pitches.”

For the first three innings, it appeared as though Willis would hang a zero in the hit column for the second time in her last three starts against the Cougars.

The right-hander expertly navigated through a trio of walks in the first two innings, inducing a double play to face the minimum in the bottom of the first inning and recording a pair of strikeouts and a pop out in the second to strand a pair of Houston baserunners.

On the heels of a spotless 1-2-3 third frame, Houston broke through with its first hit of the night to lead off the fourth inning. Willis kept the Cougars guessing, though, fanning two more and forcing a flyout to Chloe Evans in right field to once again strand a runner on base.

“Utilizing her pitches,” Ball-Malone said of the key to Willis tiptoeing around traffic. “She didn’t just stay to one pitch. She worked both sides of the plate, and drew some pop ups and fly balls, which was really nice to have.”

Houston managed just one more walk in the final two frames, as Willis retired 13 of the final 15 hitters she faced overall to clinch her first shutout of the season and sixth of her career, all of which have come since transferring to UCF prior to the 2023 season.

In her last three starts against Houston, Willis’ resume boasts 20 innings pitched, three hits allowed, zero runs scored, 13 strikeouts, three complete games, and one perfect game, the first of seven innings in the program’s history April 28, 2023.

She has also pushed her scoreless innings streak to 11.1 innings dating back to the sixth inning of her complete game against BYU April 4, yielding only five total hits with 10 punchouts in that span.

The Knights produced more than enough at the plate in support, totaling at least nine runs for the second straight game and the sixth time in their last nine games.

Since the commencement of the Black and Gold’s three-game set at Texas Tech March 28, UCF has outscored its opposition by an aggregate 79-34 in 10 games, accompanied by a team .375/.444/.545 (103-for-275) line and 28 extra-base hits (17 doubles, three triples and eight home runs).

The Knights cracked the scoreboard in the top of the first inning, courtesy of the first of four Houston errors that allowed Johneisha Rowe, who led off with a single, to score.

Designated player Ashleigh Griffin ensured the Knights would cash in on a pair of leadoff baserunners two innings later.

After Shannon Doherty singled to left field and Jada Cody reached on another error, the redshirt-sophomore deposited a 1-2 offering over the center field wall, marking her second home run of the spring and pushing UCF’s lead to 4-0 in the third frame.

The Knights pushed across three runs for the second straight inning in the fourth, all three of which were engineered by Rowe. UCF’s center fielder reached on a squeeze bunt attempt that plated Aubrey Evans, and later stayed in a rundown long enough to allow Jasmine Williams to score UCF’s sixth run while escaping a tag on her way back to first base to remain on the basepaths.

Rowe later scored the second of her three runs on a Doherty RBI single to cap off the frame’s offensive exploits, with her team’s overall strong baserunning not lost on her head coach.

“They’re really focusing in on what our identity is as an offense and using all parts,” Ball-Malone said. “Our baserunning was very high-level. ‘NeNe’ led the way with some of her situational baserunning she had, and Stormy Kotzelnick taking an extra base on a single. Being aggressive and being ready to take an extra base has been awesome to see.”

Kennedy Searcy punctuated UCF’s efforts at the plate with a two-run single in the top of the sixth inning that made the team’s second straight run-rule victory, and eighth of the season, possible.

In coming off the bench, Searcy notched her fifth multi-RBI game of the spring and continued a run of excellence as a late-game substitution. Since the Knights’ series-opener against then-No. 2 Texas March 22, Searcy has seen seven plate appearances as a pinch hitter while making only one out.

The senior in that span has gone 3-for-4 (.750) with four RBI and three walks, including Friday’s two-run single and a go-ahead two run single that proved instrumental in the Knights’ 8-5 comeback win at Texas Tech March 28.

“We had hits from almost everybody in the lineup this evening,” Ball-Malone continued. “When you have that and the depth across the board, it’s tough to pitch to the Knights.”


UCF will go for its eighth straight victory and the series win in game two against the Cougars Saturday afternoon. First pitch is slated for 3 p.m. ET from Cougar Softball Stadium, and will be streamed on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.


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