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Summer Exams: Five Questions on UCF Softball

Eric Lopez answers some of the most pressing questions surrounding UCF Softball’s offseason

UCF Softball Complex
The sun has set on UCF’s 2019 softball season.
Photo: Jeff Sharon

The UCF Knights’ Softball team’s season came to an end over the weekend, thanks to a series of unfortunate events.

First, the Knights lost in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament to Wichita State, 2-1, on a 2-out solo home run by Neleigh Herring in the bottom of the 6th inning:

Then almost the entire rest of the tournament got rained out, so Wichita couldn’t help UCF’s RPI by making a run to the title:

Finally, even with an RPI of 51, UCF got left out of the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M got in at RPI #50. UCF also will not be in the NISC Tournament, which is college softball’s version of the NIT as they declined the invite.

So what to make of the Knights’ first season under head coach Cindy Ball-Malone? For that and more, we turn to our very own Softball Woj himself, Eric Lopez, and ask him five key questions about the UCF Softball team as they head into the summer.

What’s your letter grade for Cindy Ball-Malone after her first season at the helm?

I give her a B. It is not easy to take over a roster that you inherited and get them to buy into your philosophy. Many times players rebel. That did not happen here as the transition resulted in 34 wins. The only reason it is not an A is because of just missing the NCAA Tournament and the bar for every sport on campus these days is making the NCAA Tournament.

Based on how they performed this year as a 1-2 punch, what should we expect from Alea White and Breanna Vasquez in 2020?

Expect more of same, and actually even better, which is saying something considering the staff ranks 17th in the country in ERA.

Alea continues to get better and better each season and I expect that to continue in her senior season as she chases some of major pitching records in program history as well as try to lead the program to NCAA Tournament.

Vasquez had a solid freshman season and I expect growth and a stronger second season, especially with some pitchers coming in the new class. 2020 has a chance to be deepest UCF staff ever.

UCF loses Cassady Brewer this year to graduation, along with fellow seniors Erin Emanuel and Brooke Barlow. How much will UCF miss her, and who will step in to fill her shoes?

The biggest question will be who replaces Brewer’s offensive production?

Brewer ranks in the top 10 in career batting average and home runs, as well as top two in walks and on-base, and is one of two UCF players all-time to make all-conference four years, joining Stephanie Best. It will take group of young players to make up for her production by improving and taking next step.

Barlow and Emanuel’s defense was solid. In fact, Emanuel ended up as a top-five defensive middle infielder in program history, while Barlow had a great year defensively in left. But the team returns lots of depth to fill in those positions.

What’s the one big thing UCF must improve from this year if they want to make it to the NCAA Tournament next year?

Hitting in conference. The bats went cold in conference play as UCF hit .225 as a team, scoring 54 runs in 21 conference games, which was near the bottom of the conference. That is what kept UCF from competing for a conference title and making the NCAA Tournament.

The pitching and defense was good enough. But the Knights have to hit better in conference, especially with runners on base. That is what must improve for Knights to get over the hump.

Overall, is the team’s trajectory heading into the offseason on the way up, the way down, or holding steady?

The Knights were one of first five out of the NCAA Tournament this season after being one of first five out in 2018, so they are right there knocking on the door.

The program won 68 games the last two seasons and you can make the argument they are just a few swings or pitches away from being in the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons. Many programs would take that.

But the standards in Softball are high and the bar is making the NCAAs. The Knights currently have the longest drought on campus of making NCAA Tournament, as UCF has not been in since 2016 which speaks volumes of how successful UCF Athletics has been the last three seasons. Every four-year senior class at UCF Softball has made the NCAA Tournament at least once throughout the program’s history. That is on the line in 2020 with the seniors like Alea White, Aubrey Johnson, Kyra Klarkowski, and Jasmine Esparza, as they have yet to play in NCAA Tournament.

The good news is there some great young talent on roster, led by shortstop Takiya London, who many opposing coaches have raved about when they played at UCF. So the program is in good shape. It just needs some of the youngsters to continue their growth and help the seniors of 2020 get the program back to the NCAAs.