Feb. 2, 2009
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Coming off its most successful season in its seven-year existence, the UCF softball team will use a combination of experienced veterans, eager newcomers and a pair of new coaches in 2009 to blaze a new path to the post-season.
Head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie enters her eighth season at the helm of the softball team this season, but welcomes a pair of new coaches that are more than familiar with how the skipper runs her program. Both Stephanie Best and Jennifer Whitley enter their first season as assistant coaches for the Knights after playing under Luers-Gillispie at UCF and then assisting in a volunteer or student capacity for the Black and Gold following their playing careers.
The Knights will test their skills early and often throughout 2009, competing against five teams that finished the 2008 season in the NFCA Top 25 and nine teams that participated in the 2008 NCAA Softball Tournament, including national champion Arizona State.
UCF kicks-off its competitive Conference USA schedule on the road against NCAA participant Tulsa, while also taking on NCAA competitor East Carolina, NCAA Super Regional participant Houston and Memphis on the road in league-play. UAB travels to Orlando for the Knights' first C-USA home series, before Southern Miss, Marshall and UTEP also travel to the Sunshine State in league action.
The Knights return one of the league's top infielders to the first base position in 2009, as Breanne Javier returns for her senior season. The California native has started every game for the Knights in her career at first base, while also proving to be their biggest offensive threat. Javier earned her second-consecutive All-C-USA First Team honor in 2008 after pacing the league in defensive chances and putouts, while also leading the Knights with a .385 batting average, 40 RBI and a program-record 85 hits.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Bre is going to do an excellent job for us this season," Best said. "She has always been that player that comes through in the clutch. What makes her so successful is that she wants to be the one that gets the job done."
The second base position will once again see a new face, as freshman Natalie Land secured a spot in the middle-infield during the fall season. The four-time Florida Class A All-State First Team selection won the ASA Gold National Championship with the Gold Coast Hurricanes during the summer of 2008 as a shortstop, while she finished her high school career with a .555 career batting average.
The 2008 C-USA Championship MVP, Tiffany Lane proved to be one of the top players in the league, if not the country, in 2008 and will return to anchor the middle infield. The sophomore started 68 games at shortstop for the Knights last season as a freshman, being named to the C-USA All-Freshman squad. Lane finished the 2008 season ranked ninth among the NCAA Division I competition with nine triples and set program season records in triples, runs scored (60) and stolen bases (28).
"Tiffany is a force to be reckoned with both offensively and defensively," Gillispie said. "She is able to do so much at the plate and can make insane plays at shortstop. She is able to really open up the game for us with her hitting, but also with her arm, speed and strength at shortstop, she is a difference maker on this team. She can come in and really set the stage for our program."
UCF returns veteran infielder and 2008 C-USA All-Tournament Team selection Hillary Barrow to third base in 2009. The junior has started for the Knights in the dirt in 133 consecutive games, including 69 last season at third base. Barrow led the league in assists after registering a program season record 168 in 2008, and also matched Javier with a team-leading 40 RBI. Barrow also made her mark nationally, ranking seventh in the country with five sacrifice flies.
"Hillary is one of our more vocal infielders this season and we will expect big plays from her in terms of cutting off balls in the hole and fielding bunts," Best said. "We are hoping that she can take over most of that short game area to take some pressure off of the pitchers."
Senior Lexi Gresham will be the only returning starter for the Black and Gold in the outfield in 2009, as the Knights will rely on a handful of newcomers to cover the grass. After starting the 2008 season as part of the Black and Gold pitching staff, Gresham earned the job as UCF's starting left fielder, setting a program season record with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage after starting 37-straight games in left field.
"As a senior, Lexi will come into this season with the most experience in the outfield," Whitley said. "She communicates well with her teammates and her leadership and experience should help her make big plays out there."
Another returner vying for a starting spot in the outfield in 2009 will be Morgan Bullard. Last season, the junior used her speed to run the bases for the Knights, scoring 14 runs and stealing three bases.
"Morgan has really been a solid role player for us over the last two years," Gillispie said. "She has all the tools to be a top athlete for our program and I am looking forward to her being that junior leader for us too."
Three newcomers are also looking to solidify a place in the starting lineup with their sights set on an outfield position. A transfer from Tallahassee Community College, Mary Helen Tyler already has two seasons of collegiate outfield experience under her belt. The junior was named an Easton All-American in 2008 and led Tallahassee Community College to the NJCAA District H Championship the same season.
Backing Land up at second base will be fellow freshman Vanessa Perez, but her main responsibility will likely be in the outfield. The California native led Mission Hills High School to two CIF Championships, including the title in 2005, while hitting .400 or better in four-straight seasons as an infielder.
Bringing even more speed to the outfield will be Tenisha Dixon. The five-foot-one freshman hit .482 with seven triples and 43 runs scored during her senior year at JW Mitchell High School.
With the departure of Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Southeast Region First Team honoree Allison Kime, junior Ashleigh Cole will take over as the Knights' No. 1 pitcher in 2009. Last season, Cole posted a 2.17 ERA and registered 13 wins for UCF, which included victories over No. 14 Baylor and in-state rival Florida State.
"Ashleigh won some major games for us last year," Gillispie said. "She definitely has it in her to win, but she needs to be able to be consistent and be able to keep us in ballgames. She likes that challenge and she is looking forward to that challenge this year."
Two additional returners will see time in the circle for UCF throughout the season. Senior Magon Paul has worked her way back from an injury after appearing in over 30 games as a pitcher in her first two seasons on the squad, while sophomore Diana Rojas looks to make an impact after making six appearances a season ago.
The Knights will also get some quality innings from Kristina DeMello. A transfer from Miami Dade Community College, DeMello brings two years of high-level collegiate pitching experience to the staff, while also having the knowledge of what it takes to win games.
A pair of returners will share time behind the plate for the Black and Gold this season, with senior Lindsay Dean and sophomore Abby McClain splitting time. Dean has called the shots behind the dish for three seasons, pacing the Knights with four home runs last year. McClain, a member of the 2008 C-USA All-Freshman squad, played numerous different positions for UCF last season, including second base and center field.
"Being able to have both Lindsay and Abby catch gives us a lot of different looks behind the plate," Gillispie said. "Hitting wise, Lindsay is coming on stronger and I think that she could end up being a long-ball hitter for us, while Abby is one of the most athletic catchers that I have seen in a long time. She will give us great consistency behind the plate."
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