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Softball Tops BYU, 3-2, to Open Weekend Series

by Ryan Ladika

ORLANDO – “I just like pressure, I think it’s fun.”

Knights right-hander Sarah Willis pitched through plenty of it throughout her Thursday evening start, and more than delivered in the key moments.

The senior twice bounced back from a BYU score during her latest outing, leading the UCF softball team to a slim 3-2 victory over the visiting Cougars with her second seven-inning complete game of the spring in the teams’ series-opener at the UCF Softball Complex Thursday night.

The Black and Gold’s (19-15, 5-8 Big 12) latest win, their 19th of the season, also marked the team’s fifth Big 12 Conference victory of the 2024 campaign, and gave the squad wins in five of its last six contests dating back to its three-game series at Texas Tech March 28-30.

“Just going and getting better every single inning, that’s all I can do,” Willis continued. “They’re a tough offense. Working and throwing my pitches lower, hitting spots and making them swing at pitches that I want to, and letting the defense work.”

Against a Cougars (21-14, 4-9 Big 12) team that entered play Thursday ranking in the top four in the Big 12 in average (.339), on-base percentage (.427) and runs per game (7.12), Willis was masterful in tiptoeing around danger and quieting yet another prolific offensive corps.

After BYU struck for an early score in the top of the first inning, Willis gave her team time to find its offensive footing, stranding a Cougars baserunner in the top of the second, inducing a trio of groundouts in a spotless third, and notching three more outs on the ground in a perfect fourth.

With BYU held to just two hits through four frames, the Knights’ batting order found its groove in the home half. Catcher Ashleigh Griffin ignited the squad’s push to tie the game with a leadoff single, and after the Cougars opted for a pitching change and head coach Cindy Ball-Malone pinch-ran Samantha Rey for Griffin, designated player Stormy Kotzelnick strode to the plate.

After pushing the count full through a six-pitch at-bat, the redshirt-junior transfer smacked the seventh offering of her plate appearance into the left-center field gap, allowing Rey to score easily from first base to knot the affairs at one run apiece on the strength of her fifth double of the spring.

“I got to two strikes, so I had to go into that approach,” Kotzelnick said. “Definitely, throughout that whole at-bat and fouling off pitches, my first thought was ‘let’s just take something opposite field and try and get it deep so I can score that runner for the team and give us a chance there.’ I was really thankful for the outcome and I was glad that it went the way that it did.”

The visitors snagged their one-run advantage back in the ensuing top of the fifth inning, though their advantage would be short-lived. Shannon Doherty notched a leadoff single in the home half of the fifth, and scored from first base on a short double to right field that was not handled cleanly by the Cougars outfielder.

Chloe Evans was next, swatting a double to straightaway center field to plate Cody from third base and give UCF its one-run lead.

With Cody’s run-scoring double, meanwhile, the fifth-year utility player notched the 49th two-bagger of her career, pulling her to within one of tying the UCF all-time career doubles record currently held by Jania Shinhoster (50, 2002-05).

“When we started off defensively, Sarah wasn’t as sharp as she was at the end, but I loved to see how she finished the game solidly,” said head coach Cindy Ball-Malone. “We love to keep it interesting, we left some people on base, but we pulled out the win in the end. I love how Chloe made the adjustment in her at-bat, and I’m looking forward to seeing quicker adjustments tomorrow and playing solid defense.”

Following the Knights’ second rally of the evening, Willis only grew stronger with each passing inning. The right-hander responded to her team’s two-run frame with a perfect sixth inning, including a pair of flyouts and a groundout, and she sealed the Knights’ one-run win with a spotless seventh, punctuated by her third strikeout of the night.

In going the distance for the fourth time this season, Willis also notched her fourth start consisting of a seven-inning complete game with three or fewer hits allowed. All four such starts have come since transferring to UCF prior to the 2023 campaign, and her Thursday effort marked her first such start since her seven-inning complete game two-hitter against the Houston Cougars April 30, 2023.

“She did a great job, it was a three-hitter against a very good lineup,” Ball-Malone continued. “They’re tough because they can hit a lot of different pitches. She’s one who gets tougher as the game goes on, and I like seeing that.”


UCF will look to clinch its second straight series win in game two of the set against BYU Friday evening. First pitch from the UCF Softball Complex is slated for 6 p.m., and will be streamed on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.


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