Left with a dissatisfying, bitter taste in their mouths after a 7-0 loss to the University of Florida last year in the NCAA Regionals, the UCF softball team now has even more motivation to fuel its drive toward an NCAA trip to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series.
The team returned 19 of the 22 players this season, anchored by a two-headed beast in the circle in senior pitcher Mackenzie Audas and junior pitcher Shelby Turnier, and feels its now equipped with priceless experience.
"We're lucky to have Mackenzie and Shelby leading our pitching staff," head coach Luers-Gillispie said. "They're the prototypical role-models in the way they lead out there on the field."
But an aggressive two-headed beast isn't the sense you're left with after meeting the two humble personalities, who attribute their success to the coaching staff, teammates, family, friends and even previous coaches.
"Not only can I count on coach G for help, but my pitching coach back home (Plant City, Florida) is amazing. Shelby and the other pitchers are also in the bullpen to help me if I'm struggling," Audas said.
Luers-Gillispie has worked with the pitchers to perfect subtle nuances within the circle. The time spent has proven to benefit the Knights who have a 15-3 record thus far, taking into account that Audas and Turnier have an arsenal equipped with five pitches each.
"[Luers-Gillispie] is always in the bullpen with us, giving us ideas or feedback on certain pitches we're throwing, but she allows us to be independent at the same time," Turnier said. "If we have ideas as pitchers, she's always open. She lets us really become ourselves."
Audas and Turnier have had their sights set on leading the black and gold to Oklahoma City for their season finale, getting back in the swing of things early to ensure they leave their hearts out on the field in Audas' last campaign.
"We've been ready to play since we got back to school," Turnier said. "We just wanted to come back and start playing right away, so we got right back to work in the summer and fall."
That hard work and perseverance is paying off for the Knights who have had a strong season to date, climbing to the No. 15 spot, according to ESPN. That marks the highest program ranking since its inauguration in 2002. Audas started the season opener with a no-hitter, old news to the ace who now has four, with a double hindering her from recording her fifth on Sunday versus LIU Brooklyn. And opponents, on average, are scoring fewer than a run per game
Although both pitchers deflect any praise about their accolades, the awards they've tallied do the talking for them.
"I think that her performances speak for themselves," Audas said with a grin about Turnier's value to the team.
The desire for learning, coupled with their hard work and motivation to avenge last season's loss, is a formula they feel will make them successful.
With last year's regional still lingering in their minds, the Knights hope to ride this two-headed beast to the promised land.
Esteban Garcia is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.