Last year was a banner year for UCF Softball. It also ended in depressing fashion in Tallahassee, thanks to some finagling (some would call it flagrant disrespect) by the NCAA Softball Tournament Committee and a heart-breaking loss to the host team in the regional.
So this year's team has a massive chip on its shoulder to go with a top-20 preseason ranking in both the USA Today/NFCA and ESPN.com/USA Softball polls (#17 in both) and one of the most difficult schedules in the country.
So far, they're off to a great start at 3-0, defeating Liberty, Rutgers and #5 Alabama at home in the first home win over a top-five team in program history.
Head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie did exactly that by design: Rather than win the conference and hope the Committee thinks UCF deserves to host a regional for the first time in school history, she's put the ball in the hands of her players to leave no doubt about it. It's a huge risk, but the rewards could be program-defining, with Oklahoma City squarely in the Knights' sights.
Here's a quick look at UCF Softball for 2016.
Last Year: 50-9, 16-2 in conference
It was UCF Softball's greatest year ever. It marked the first time UCF had won the conference regular season and tournament crowns in the same year, and the Knights did so in dramatic fashion:
The Knights' first season with back-to-back NCAA appearances ended with a 2-2 stint at the Tallahassee Regional, with both losses coming at the hands of the Seminoles.
Head Coach: Renee Luers-Gillispie
Gillispie is the only coach the Knights have ever known. She founded the program in 2001, and is now entering her 15th season in Orlando with 500 wins at UCF in her sights (Her current record at UCF is 474-327-1).
Here's Coach Gillispie previewing her team's 2016 season with Eric Lopez and Victor Anderson on the In The Circle Podcast:
Top Returning Players
Shelby Turnier - Senior Pitcher (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.)
Turnier had a season for the ages as a junior, posting a 25-8 record, 0.87 ERA (1st in the nation and a school record), tossing two no-hitters (she has three for her career) and becoming UCF's first ever All-American First Team selection. She's simply the best there is in the nation, which sets up some really tough expectations for a senior.
Jessica Ujvari - Senior DP/Catcher (Pensacola, Fla.)
Take your pick for a position player from the eight seniors (and a really good class of juniors), but Ujvari is coming off a .314 average, 7 home run and team-leading 38 RBI season. She leads a group of eight seniors who have a chance to get UCF to Oklahoma City for the first time in school history.
Key Games on the Calendar
UPDATE: UCF (3-0) already has one key date in the books, having beaten preseason #5 Alabama at home, 8-1, on Friday night before a sell-out crowd:
- February 13th vs. James Madison
- February 17th vs. Auburn
- February 19th-21st at Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs, California (vs. Texas A&M, UCLA, Arizona, LSU and Washington)
- February 26th vs. Notre Dame
- March 23rd vs. Georgia Tech
- March 29th vs. Florida State
- April 6th vs. Florida
- April 8th-10th vs. Tulsa (three games)
- April 15th-17th at Houston (three games)
- April 29th-May 1st at USF (three games)
Things to Keep an Eye on
Mackenzie Audas took a lot of pressure off Turnier last year as a senior, also finishing in the top five in ERA in the NCAA. Her gradation means someone else will have to take the load off Turnier's back in 2016.
The Knights have eight seniors on the roster, plus super juniors Brittany Solis and Linnea Goodman.
The schedule is a Murderers Row of NCAA contenders, with 14 opponents ranked or receiving votes in the preseason polls, including six in the top ten (four of them at home). Like we said above, that's totally by design.
The Knights head out west once again for the Mary Nutter Classic in late February against some of the best competition in the nation, including three Pac-12 teams.
The American Athletic Conference Tournament will be in Tulsa, Oklahoma this year. UCF hosted last season.
Talent in the circle and veteran leadership at the plate make UCF a serious national threat in 2016.
Follow UCF Softball on Twitter at @UCF_Softball.
Also, Eric Lope is back on the mic for another year calling UCF Softball live on UCFKnights.com. You should follow him at @EricLopezELO.