Most NCAA softball programs would walk away satisfied from reaching the NCAA Regional last year, but coach Renee Luers-Gillispie and her team wanted more. This year's squad is determined to make history by becoming the first team to win back-to-back American Athletic Conference championships.
The Knights have gone 27-5 this season and look to bring that success to the postseason. The team has already handled its business against tougher competition, and in fine fashion as well — the Knights have allowed only one run in wins against Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas and Hawaii, and have the lowest Earned Run Average in the nation.
"We want to be able to put another trophy on that table and be able to say that we've got back-to-back conference championships," Luers-Gillispie said. "[We also] want to go to back-to-back regionals. We seem to always skip every other year to get to regionals, and this is the squad that can take us there."
The team has been firing on all cylinders this year, and with so many facets of their game working so well, it's not difficult to envision this team making a road trip to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series at the end of May.
"Oh Lord, you have to give me a second here," junior pitcher Shelby Turnier said as she took a moment to collect her thoughts on why the team is playing well. "We went pretty far last season, and I think it gave us a taste as to what we could do this season. I think that's why we came out with a fire and ready to take it to the next level."
With a motivator like last year's 7-0 loss to Florida in regionals fueling a team that has returned 19 out of 22 players from last year, you can bet that redeeming themselves is a popular topic of discussion in the locker room. It may also be the reason the entire squad has stepped it up in big moments. It could be senior Mackenzie Audas pitching a no-hitter, or sophomore Brittany Solis hitting a walk-off single to beat Missouri. Likewise, sophomore Linnea Goodman and senior Kahley Novak — the new career stolen bases record leader at UCF — have been setting a tone for the rest of the lineup that other teams loathe facing. Those performances don't go unnoticed, as they set the tone for the rest of the team.
"This year, I just set higher goals for myself and I've been working really hard to reach those goals," Goodman said. "My teammates and I are all on the same page and we all want to accomplish the same thing."
It's that camaraderie that instills confidence across the field.
"As the No. 3 hitter, having Goodman in front of me, it's awesome to always have someone to knock in," said senior Farrah Sullivan.
The Knights have all the makings to not only make history by reaching regionals again, but to surpass last season's efforts and potentially reach Oklahoma City.
"People are going to be on the lookout for us because we're on our way up," Novak said.
The Knights have a history of exceptional conference play. Since joining the American Athletic Conference, UCF has never lost a conference series, either splitting it or winning outright.
Esteban Garcia is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.