Natalie Land and the Knights Ready for Showdown with No. 3 Florida


GO KNIGHTS Natalie Land and the rest of the Knights are looking for a big win against the Gators.
GO KNIGHTS
Natalie Land and the rest of the Knights are looking for a big win against the Gators.
GO KNIGHTS

April 10, 2012

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By John Denton, Knights Insider
UCFAthletics.com

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) – Natalie Land’s place in UCF softball history is already unquestioned, but knowing that there is another game to continue making memories still drives her to succeed.

Gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails players such as Land live for the games, the big moments and the adrenaline rushes that competition provides. As long as there are more games to play, they are usually at their happiest.

But now in her senior season, Land is well aware that the clock is ticking on her college career. That has heightened her sense of urgency, sharpened her focus and stoked her famed inner fire. Rarely ever left with a clean shred of uniform after games, Land is determined to do whatever it takes to will UCF to a magical season.

``I keep thinking every day, `Wow, where has the time gone?’ It seems like every season has just gone by so quickly,’’ said Land, an all-freshman performer in 2009 and a first-team all-conference pick each of the past two seasons. ``Before, I was always thinking, `Oh well, I have another season or a couple of more seasons.’ But now I know there’s nothing else there for me (in college softball) after this season, so I want to make it a special year.’’

On Wednesday night, Land will get her final regular-season shot at fourth-ranked Florida in what figures to be an electric atmosphere at the UCF Softball Complex. Land grew up 60 miles west of the UF campus in Mayo. Her famous uncle, Kerwin Bell, was a star quarterback for the Gators, and her family bled orange and blue. There was always an expectation that she would attend Florida, but she instead picked UCF, a decision she says she’s never regretted once.

On Wednesday night, with approximately 10 family members expected to be in the crowd, Land hopes to make the most of another opportunity against the Gators.

``I grew up a hard-core Gators fan,” she said. “There were some expectations (to go to Florida), but once I decided to come to UCF, I threw those out and kept my focus on trying to win here,’’ Land said. ``Ever since I’ve been here we haven’t taken away the win against them. A couple of times we’ve been close, but this is my last chance. I know our team is ready. We have all of the tools we need to win a game like this.’’

The 6:30 p.m. game is already sold out, with limited free admission slots available for UCF students on game day. The game will be broadcast on Bright House Sports Network. UCF is planning to peel back some of the wind screens along the outfield walls so that more fans can watch the heavily anticipated game.

UCF (29-10) comes into the showdown against Florida riding a nine-game winning streak. The Knights swept Conference USA rivals East Carolina and UTEP during the past two weeks. UCF is hoping that a win against Florida could vault it into the top 25, improve its RPI and better the chances of a bid to the NCAA Tournament next month.

“It would be huge for our program,’’ UCF softball coach Renee Luers-Gillispie said. “If we get this win, it would show that we’re deserving of being a contender this year.’’

Land, a gritty 5-foot-6 shortstop, has earned plenty of respect at UCF, where she has been a star each of the past four seasons. This season, she leads the Knights in batting average (.316), runs (34), hits (42), triples (five), home runs (tied with five) and stolen bases (27). Similarly, she was the do-everything player for the Knights last season by leading the team in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, triples and stolen bases.

Her style of play – diving for balls and sliding in head-first on stolen bases – has been infectious for a UCF team that regularly plays five freshmen. On Sunday against UTEP, she opened the game with a tone-setting home run and finished UCF’s three-game sweep with five hits, five RBI, seven runs scored, a home run and four stolen bases.

``She’s just so much fun to watch. Between her and (centerfielder) Vanessa (Perez) being in our 1-2 spot in the lineup, they have been feeding off one another so well,’’ Luers-Gillispie said. ``And Natalie has made some unbelievable plays for us. Every single game that she plays, she’s the dirtiest player out there on the field.’’

Land is hoping to earn her first win against the Gators and help the Knights position themselves for postseason play in May.

``It takes me back to two years ago, my sophomore year, when they came to Orlando, we had a sold-out crowd and people were all behind the fence and they were ranked No. 1 or 2 at the time,’’ Land said. ``I expect it will be the same with a lot of intensity, and everybody I’ve talked to is excited about the game. I expect it to be a great game.

``We’re starting to get nationally recognized, so to go out and possibly beat a top-five team like Florida, that would just open people’s eyes even more about us.’’

John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.


 

 

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