Feb. 12, 2010
By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF's softball team talks daily about the goal of returning as champions of Conference USA, and with so many players still on the roster who were a part of the 2008 title team, coach Renee Luers-Gillispie is hoping that that experience will lead to great things this season.
Three seniors and two juniors were a part of the UCF team that won the conference tourney title and reached the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago. Luers-Gillispie, who knows a thing or two about success having won two league titles at UCF and 510 games overall, is leaning heavily on that group now to grab the leadership of the team and make sure a talented and deep Knights team reaches its full potential.
"We talk all the time about how hard we had to work that season to get there for that championship and how much work we'll have to put in this season to get it done," said Luers-Gillispie, who is in her ninth season at UCF. "Our seniors have to be our leaders and show the young ones how to get back there (to a championship level). It won't be easy, but this team has great potential."
UCF had to endure a rebuilding season last year, going 27-27 overall and 11-12 in C-USA play. Losing in the first round of the tournament drove the team through the offseason to be better and push the goals back up to championship levels.
Rain on Friday pushed back the season-openers to Saturday when the Knights will face 16th ranked Tennessee at 5 p.m. and seventh-ranked Georgia at 7 p.m. in the prestigious NTC Elite Invitational in Clermont. UCF closes the tournament by facing Tennessee-Chattanooga on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Luers-Gillispie intentionally stacked the schedule with top-notch competition - Friday's rained-out games were supposed to be against No. 11 Oklahoma and No. 8 UCLA - to prepare her team for the rigors of conference play. Before Friday's rain outs, the Knights were scheduled to play three teams that made it to the Women's World Series last season, six teams coming off berths in the Super Regionals and 15 squads that advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
Luers-Gillispie said that if the Knights proved they could hang with some of the nation's best teams, it would give them the confidence needed heading into C-USA play later in the season.
"You set up a schedule so that you can face a level of competition that will show our ladies the level of team that we want to be," Luers-Gillispie said. "These are games that will be a measuring stick for us for the rest of the season."
UCF can dream big this season because of the return of ace pitchers Ashleigh Cole and Kristina DeMello, both of who picked up valuable experience last season while having to pitch at the top of the rotation for the first time. Cole, who relies mainly on curve and power pitches, got the nod to start today's first game because she's been the better pitcher in workouts and she was a solid 17-8 last season with a 2.42 ERA and 106 strikeouts. DeMello, a sinker-riseball specialist, was 8-8 in 26 appearances (18 starts) a year ago with a 2.69 ERA and 92 Ks.
Luers-Gillispie is just as excited about the players behind her "1-2 pitching punch," saying that the Knights could very well have "one of the best defensive teams that we've ever had." She can say that because of slick fielders Tiffany Lane (shortstop) and Natalie Land (second base). Lane was an All-Conference-USA pick last season after hitting .350 and tying for the nation lead in triples with eight.
"Tiffany has so much speed and she puts pressure on the defense when she's on the bases," Luers-Gillispie said. "If they play her tight, she shoot one through the defense and if they back up she'll lay down a bunt. She's so smart at the plate."
Land, a sophomore, is a rising star in the program after being named to Conference USA's All-Freshman team. She was first on the team in steals (14) and second in sacrifice bunts (11) and is the shortstop of the future after Lane graduates.
And in Abby McClain, the Knights have a solid catcher who is easily UCF's hardest worker and top leader. She was a second-team all-conference pick last spring as a utility player, but she will focus primarily on catching this season.
Put it all together and Luers-Gillispie feels UCF has all the ingredients to make this a special season, special as in one that ends with another league title.
"I'm really looking forward to this year," the coach said. "I think our players have come back hungrier and I think that will translate into great things. I think a lot of our players understand that we need to win our league and get back to the NCAA Tournament, because that's what it's all about in softball. I think we have the strength and tenacity to be pretty good."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.