Young Knights Lead Team to Championship



May 5, 2014

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By Nate Blythe

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ORLANDO, Fla. ( - As one of the youngest squads in the nation, the UCF softball team wasn't expected to make a championship run after being picked fourth in The American Preseason Poll. Head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie was unsure of what to expect.

What she did know was that the strength of her team started in the circle with junior Mackenzie Audas and sophomore Shelby Turnier.

"We have two No. 1 pitchers that can come in anytime we need them to," Gillispie said. "It is important to understand that we have three strong pitchers behind them.

"Our offense was suspect at the beginning of the season, because we were not always consistent. The hitters have matured by understanding that they have to stay focused on doing their job one pitch at a time."

Following a sweep against Houston on April 26-27, when the Knights totaled 40 hits and took a two-game lead in the league standings, freshman Lena Springer realized that the team unified following a 1-0 mid-week loss to Stetson on April 23.

"We were really nervous and excited going into the weekend series," Springer said. "Why we came out as hard as we did was because we came together as a team. We played together, backed each other up and fought for one another."

Gillispie considers the team going through a leadership training course was a big reason for the Knights' success. UCF split up the chapters in Leadership Training for Softball by Aaron Weintraub, and throughout the season a group of players recapped their section of the book during the team's weekly meetings.

"The book talks about taking one pitch at a time," Gillispie said. "It deals with keeping a positive attitude and staying focused on your job at hand. You have to be positive with each other, while becoming focused on what you need from one another."

UCF played 39 games at the friendly confines of the UCF Softball Complex, tying for the most home contests in the nation along with conference-rival USF and Arizona State (3 remaining).

The Knights started the year with a school-record 7-0 start, but one of the most critical experiences for the young team came on Feb. 21-23 at Rhoads Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. No. 7 Alabama served as the host of the tournament and attracted Top 50 RPI foes in McNeese State and Virginia Tech.

That Friday night after a 5-2 win over McNeese State, the Knights held a 3-1 lead entering the sixth inning against the Crimson Tide in their home opener before the hosts stormed back with seven-unanswered runs. The teams met the next day, and Audas kept the potent Alabama offense off-balance in a 1-0 walk-off loss with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.

"Our young team saw that they can compete with anyone but also understood that there was maturing going on throughout the season," coach Gillispie said.

Entering the American Athletic Conference schedule, UCF held a 23-10 record that included a 3-0 win over then-No. 22 Notre Dame. The Knights started league play by winning five of their first six contests before entering a critical stretch playing the top teams - USF, Louisville and Houston - in consecutive weeks.

The Knights may not have played their prettiest softball of the season, but found ways to win the Sunday rubber match of their series at USF, 2-1, and vs. Louisville, 5-1. UCF took control of the race for the league title the following week with a sweep of second-place Houston and were ranked No. 25 in the RPI, the highest in school history.

"Our success was all about our players fighting for each other," Gillispie said. "They went from playing for themselves to competing for each other. We just kept fighting and believed that we were going to respond."

The sweep at UConn to close the regular season enabled clinched the program's first regular season conference championship. Gillispie, who started the program and won her 700th-career game on March 30, has guided the Knights to four NCAA Regional appearances, all in Gainesville, after winning the 2008 and 2010 C-USA Tournament and earning at-large berths in 2005 and 2012.

The Knights upper class that contains just four juniors (no seniors) will lead the team into The American Championship in Houston, Texas, as the inaugural regular season champions. The single-elimination tournament begins for No. 1 UCF on Thursday at 5 p.m. Eastern against No. 8 UConn.



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