UCF Softball Season Outlook

Feb. 5, 2014

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By Nate Blythe

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFKnights.com) - With just four returning juniors and not a single senior on its roster, the UCF softball team is one of the youngest in the nation. Despite its youth, the squad brings back eight starters in its lineup. A total of 18 underclassmen make up the roster that includes seven newcomers - five freshmen and two sophomore transfers.

After the team graduated five role players in 2013, an even younger Knights' squad peaked toward the end of last year's campaign by winning 11 of their last 14 contests. UCF finished 29-25 overall and 10-14 in Conference USA in 2013.

"The ultimate goal for us is to get to the NCAA Tournament and compete in the post season," head coach Rene Luers-Gillispie said.

A new challenge awaits UCF this spring as it enters the American Athletic Conference. Memphis, Rutgers, No. 18 Louisville and Houston make their way to Orlando, while the first three-game weekend series at rival No. 22 USF is set for April 12-13.

"Being in The American is exciting because it is wide open," Gillispie said. "We have an opportunity to establish ourselves in the top echelon of the league."

The Knights host a school-record 41 games at the UCF Softball Complex, including four tournaments over the first five weekends of competition. The slate is loaded with 14 games against opponents that finished in the top 40 in 2013.

An early road test for the Knights occurs on Feb. 19-23 as they travel to No. 18 Florida State and continue on to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to face perennial-power No. 6 Alabama twice along with Virginia Tech.

At the helm of the UCF program since its inception in 2002 is Gillispie, who mentors the pitching staff. The 22-year coaching veteran is approaching her 700th-career victory.

The coaching staff remains intact with assistant coach Ruben Felix entering his fourth season working with the hitters and infielders. Assistant coach Hillary Barrow, a four-year standout for the Knights from 2007-10, trains the outfielders in her second campaign. Also returning is volunteer assistant coach Joel Chimelis, who aids in hitting and infield, and director of operations Michelle Felix.

One of the major strengths for UCF lies in the circle with junior Mackenzie Audas and sophomores Shelby Turnier and Jamie Ujvari, a transfer from USC Upstate. A talented freshman in Lena Springer will push the returners, while Mackenzie Huhn provides depth as a southpaw.

"We have a strong and deep pitching staff," Gillespie said. "Any one of them could step up and become our No. 1, so we will put them in situations and continue evaluating their performance throughout the season."

Turnier came through for UCF with a 14-7 record and 2.33 ERA to earn recognition on the C-USA All-Freshman Team. The Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., native fanned nine opponents twice last year.

"Shelby worked really hard this offseason and it has shown in her movement and speed," Gillespie said. "She is the kind of athlete that you want to have on the field that brings leadership to the entire team."

She is a dual-treat player that can swing away and totaled 12 hits last year. Turnier can be used a defensive weapon in the outfield because she has one of the strongest arms on the team.

After a phenomenal freshman season that included C-USA Co-Pitcher and Freshman of the Year, Audas' sophomore campaign was highlighted by the second no-hitter of her career against UTEP (4/6/13) and C-USA Pitcher of the Week accolades. The Pant City, Fla., native notched a 14-17 mark with 224 strikeouts in 205 innings of work.

"Mac is always putting in the time to become a more consistent pitcher," Gillispie said. "She is looking to build confidence and become our go-to pitcher."

Ujvari and twin sister, Jessica, a catcher, transferred in prior to the fall season from USC Upstate. The Niceville, Fla., native tallied a 1.85 ERA and 20-4 record, leading the Spartans to a third-place finish at the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional.

"One of the biggest pluses that Jamie brings to our young team is regional experience," Gillispie said. "She shows a lot of maturity in the circle and is going to develop into an outstanding leader for us."

Springer is a 5-6 hurler from the Ethel Walker School in New Britain, Conn. Huhn, a left-handed reliever, appeared in 11 contests, picking up a victory and fanning seven batters.

UCF has four catchers that can handle the pitching staff and manage the game. Returning sophomore Kalyn Cenal is expected to see a majority of time behind the plate. The coaching staff also has confidence in sophomores Sam McCloskey, Jessica Ujvari and freshman Kaleigh Singleton.

Cenal registered 29 hits, four doubles and two homers as a freshman. The Tampa, Fla., native drove in a team-high 26 runs.

"Kalyn has improved her technique behind the plate and built trust with the pitching staff," Gillispie said. "She is going to fight at the plate and be a power hitter for us."

Ujvari compiled a .424 slugging pct. with five doubles and three home runs, while driving in 27 runners.

"Jessica has a lot of power and the ability to change the outcome of the game with one swing," Gillispie said. "If not catching, she could see an opportunity as a pinch hitter or designated player."

Singleton was a four-year standout for the Texas Blaze and made the ASA Gold Nationals. The Round Rock, Texas, native was honored as the District 16 51 MVP Offensive Player as a senior at Cedar Ridge High School.

First Base
Sophomore Samantha McCloskey is one of the team's top returners and solidifies the Knights at first base. The Palm Harbor, Fla., native tallied 24 hits, five doubles and three home runs during her rookie campaign.

"Samantha is determined to be a great hitter," Gillispie said. "She has dramatically improved her pitch selection, which has become one of her biggest strengths. She knows the effort it takes to be a quality hitter by understanding what needs to be accomplished at practice."

Another option for UCF at first is to give Cenal a break behind the plate.

Second Base
The two-deep battle at second base includes junior Kahley Novak and sophomore Kirsten Foster. Both were standouts at East Ridge High School and Clermont, Fla.

Novak was selected to the C-USA All-Freshman Team after carrying a .257 avg. with 37 hits. She is dynamic on the base paths, swiping 31 bases last year.

"Kahley is a hard-nosed athlete that can slap, but also hit away," Gillispie said. "She is a smart runner and outstanding leadoff hitter."

Foster appeared in 34 contests as a freshman and registered seven hits and four stolen bases.

To start the season, sophomore Kaitlyn Steckel and freshman Brittany Solis are expected to share time as the starting shortstop. The coaching staff expects one of the players to emerge as a starter prior to the start of conference play.

Steckel earned the nod in the middle infield as a freshman and totaled 53 putouts and 43 assists. She improved at the plate as the season progressed and finished with eight hits and a pair of doubles.

"Kaitlyn is a strong defender with a fantastic arm and great range," Gillispie said. "She has improved during the fall, and we are excited to see what she can do this season."

Solis, a multi-sport athlete that also competed in soccer and volleyball at Chaminade College Preparatory, played in the summer for the Carona Angels, one of the top travel teams in the nation. The West Hills, Calif., native was tabbed as the Chaminade Female Outstanding Athlete of the Year as a senior.

Third Base
The hot corner is anchored by junior Farrah Sullivan, who was selected as the Knights' MVP following the 2013 campaign. The Waynesboro, Miss., native compiled a team-best .281 avg. with four doubles and six home runs.

"Farrah is one of our primary leaders and brings a lot of experience to the team," Gillispie said. "She can make all the plays at third. She has the ability to hit for a high average along with providing some power."

Sullivan compiled a .956 fielding pct. with 59 putouts and 89 assists. She was honored on the C-USA Second and All-Freshman team in 2012.

The versatility and depth that UCF possesses allows for Novak and Foster to play a number of positions besides second base. Either player can find time in the outfield and multiple infield position.

The Knights have a number of capable outfielders fighting for the three positions. Junior Maddie Schroeder, Mariah Garcia and freshmen Linnea Goodman have separated themselves during the fall, while sophomores Taylor Wagner, Brittany Gasser and freshman Blaire Kelley are pushing them in practice each day.

The lone upperclassman of the bunch is Schroeder, who roamed centerfield last year. The Jacksonville, Fla., native finished with 35 hits and 23 runs scored, while tallying a .310 on-base pct.

"Maddie covers a lot of ground in center field and has developed into a leader in the outfield," Gillispie said. "She has begun to understand the game, which has improved her consistency at the plate."

Garcia is a sophomore that paced the team with nine doubles and added four home runs as a freshman. The Houston, Texas, native also drew a team-high 20 walks.

"Mariah is going to be a force for us at the plate," Gillispie said. "We expect her to be a big left-handed power hitter in our lineup. She has an above-average arm and quickly reacts to the ball."

Goodman comes from the Lakewood Firecrackers organization, playing on a tremendous team and organization. The Long Beach, Calif., native was a four-year outfielder at Millikan High School, where she earned the league's offensive player of the year and a selection on the first team.

"Linnea is a newcomer that we are expecting big things from," Gillispie said. "She is a left-side slapper that can also hit for power."

Wagner came on strong during league play and was tabbed to the C-USA All-Freshman team. She was the only player on the team to record a .300 avg. with 15 hits and 18 RBI.

The depth from the squad comes from Gasser and Kelley. Gasser came through with a pair of base knocks, while Kelley is still looking for her first action with the Knights after sitting out with injuries over the past two campaigns.

Designated Player
Je. Ujvari, Foster and Wagner could also find an opportunity taking up the designated player role. All three have shown signs of power and the ability to be consistent.



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