Fresh off a 50-win season, UCF softball has set its sights on a conference title.
The seniors of the team, who are among the oldest in the league, were bolstered by a strong lineup of freshman recruits this past National Signing Day.
Ranked No. 17 in the USA Today/NFCA Preseason Poll, the Knights look to dominate the American Athletic Conference with the help of returning stars, such as senior defensive player and catcher Jessica Ujvari, catcher and first basemen Samantha McCloskey and pitcher Shelby Turnier.
Turnier gained national attention for her efforts throughout the 2014-15 season, as she was nominated for the 2016 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year as a Top 50 finalist and was a Top 10 finalist for the same award last year.
Now she hopes to take her own success and help mold a team of strong new recruits and experienced seniors into a conference-title contender.
“I’m honored to have all the success I’ve had throughout my years here,” Turnier said. “It’s been a lot of individual successes, so I really want to take that and turn it into a team success, which for us would mean going past Regionals and making it to Super Regionals. That would mean more to me than anything I’ve accomplished thus far.”
Head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie said the team won’t waste any time putting its freshmen recruits to good use. She identified catcher Autumn Gillespie and infielder Cassady Brewer as players likely to get ample playing time, whether they’re hitting, fielding or both.
“I think [the freshmen] are all going to play specific roles,” Turnier said. “The team as a whole, every single person is going to be very central to what we are trying to accomplish this year. I think that with such an older team, because we went from being one of the youngest teams in the nation to one of the oldest teams in the nation, we’re just really excited to go out with a bang.”
During the 2014-15 season, the Knights attended the NCAA championship for the second year in a row, making it all the way to the championship game of the NCAA Tallahassee Regional Tournament. UCF defeated South Carolina but, in the final round, lost to No. 9 Florida State 5-0.
Catcher Jessica Ujvari said the loss was just a speedbump on the road to victory.
“I don’t think last year demotivated us,” Ujvari said. “Yeah, we didn’t want 5-0 to be the score, but we played them before, we had battled neck to neck with them, and we can beat any team whether they’re ranked No. 1 or whether it’s No. 100.”
UCF finished out the 2014-15 season with an 11-game winning streak and a .979 fielding percentage, ranking second in the nation. The team had a batting average of .292, which led them to score 265 runs, of which 39 were homeruns. The team also had the fewest losses in program history for a season with only nine.
Head coach Gillispie said the team was trying to raise its rankings high enough to host this season’s regional competition.
“Our goal was to be host of regionals, and I felt like we did everything we needed to to be in that place, and that is kind of our goal this year,” Gillispie said. “We’re hoping we can get our RPI [rating percentage index] high enough so that we can host this year and with that you are seeing the strength of our schedule.”
The Knights will face Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State and James Madison at home this season. James Madison and Florida were both in the regional finals last year.
“Our RPI is there. It’s a much tougher schedule, probably one of the toughest schedules in the country right now,” Gillispie said.
But to Gillispie, softball is so much more than a game — it’s about building a character the team can be proud of. With this in mind, she strives to instill selflessness and responsibility among the players off the field, through academics, community service and their personal relationships.
“It’s more than just a game,” Turnier said. “It’s more than just an education. It’s about making lifelong friends with the girls here. They are people I’m never going to forget, and they have all impacted me in a different kind of way. We are a family.”
Inside the locker room, the team gets creative by posting inspirational and funny quotes on a chalk board, along with challenging each other to dance battles.
By keeping the attitude positive and light-hearted in the clubhouse, the team is able to see that attitude reflected on the field.
“Composure and attitude are the big things,” Ujivari said. “If we have the right attitude and the right mindset, that’s what is gonna produce great results.”
Ujivari said in the clubhouse, before games, the team will listen to Justin Bieber or whoever else happens to be on the radio and rap and dance to that.
“My teammates will tell me no, but in my mind, it’s yes, all the time,” Ujivari said. “I can win a rap battle, but not a dance off.”
Amanda Schoep is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.