March 29, 2010
By John Denton
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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - There are times during games when standout second baseman Natalie Land will glance down at her glove and remember just how grand the expectations are this season for UCF's softball team.
Assuredly, UCF has visions of winning a Conference USA title, and the Knights could be well on their way to doing just that after starting 7-1 in league play. But, UCF's team is so stacked and deep with talent this season that the dreams extend even beyond the confines of the conference.
"At the beginning of the year we wrote down our goals, and Conference USA was one of them, but we don't want to just stop there," said Land, UCF's top hitter this season with a .322 batting average. "The conference championship is what we're playing for, but we want the regionals and super regionals and we want to get to Oklahoma City (the site of the Women's College World Series). I wrote `OKC' in my glove, and some of my teammates did too, so we can look down in the middle of games and remind ourselves what the ultimate goal is."
UCF (22-12) can dream big after pulling off one huge victory after another so far the season. Renee Luers-Gillispie, UCF's head coach for the past nine seasons, purposely stacked the schedule early in the season with some of the nation's best teams to challenge her squad.
UCF has already defeated Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Nebraska, Ohio State, Providence, Boston College, UConn and Villanova. Even some of the losses have been to some of the nation's premier schools, such as Georgia, Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Maryland.
Luers-Gillispie got a true gauge of her team two weeks ago when UCF faced perennial power Houston, a program that it had never beaten twice in a series before. UCF promptly swept the Cougars, and gave Luers-Gillispie a glimpse at her team's potential.
"Houston is always the powerhouse in the conference and when you see a team who can go up against Houston and take two or three against them, that's kind of a great guideline as to how you are playing," Luers-Gillispie said. "To sweep them gave the team the confidence they need to go into the rest of the games. Our concern now is that we have a target on our back and there's no sneaking up on anyone now. Everyone will come after us."
UCF handled that pressure just fine this past weekend, sweeping Southern Miss in the team's first true road series of the season. The Knights steam-rolled the Golden Eagles in the three games, outscoring them 18-5.
Luers-Gillispie said facing some of the nation's toughest teams early in the season helped build the confidence of a team already expecting big things. UCF won the C-USA tournament title in 2008, beating ninth-ranked Houston. Now, the dream is to repeat that feat and do even more.
"I got ridiculed on that schedule early, but you have to give the players the opportunity to go up against the best teams in the country," Luers-Gillispie said. "That's why they are here, because they want to play the best. They know there's tremendous parity across the country and it's just a matter of the energy that we're putting out each game."
Up next for UCF is a nearly sold out home showdown against the University of Florida. The game will be televised locally by Bright House Sports Network, and the Knights can hardly wait for the chance to prove themselves against their rivals from north Florida.
"It's a great thing for UCF and our facility having a team of their caliber coming here," Luers-Gillispie said. "The team always gets up for games like that. It's a game for our players to showcase what kind of team we really are."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.