Thursday was a big day for UCF Knights softball as the program announced that seniors Alea White, Kyra Klarkowski, and Jazmine Esparza will return in 2021.
For head coach Cindy Ball-Malone, it is huge news as she returns almost everyone from 2020 team that was 21-5-1 and ranked 21st in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 Coaches Poll when the season was cut short due to COVID-19.
One of the bigger stories once the spring sports were cancelled was what the future would hold for Alea White, who has been the ace of the pitching staff since her freshman season.
White was 6th in the nation in wins with 11 and tied for 25th in shutouts with three, along with posting a 1.85 ERA when the season ended in March. Currently, White ranks in the top four in many UCF career pitching categories, including in starts with 109 (3rd), appearances with 143 (T-2nd), saves with 7 (3rd), complete games with 84 (3rd), innings pitched with 767 (3rd), strikeouts with 532 (4th), and wins, where White stands at 77 and was on pace to break the record by April, had the 2020 season continued. As it is now, White is just three wins away from the program record held by Shelby Turnier (80).
White will lead arguably the deepest pitching staff in program history as the Knights will also have Breanna Vazquez (4-1, 1.79 ERA in 2020) along with Gianna Mancha (6-2, 3.11 ERA). Cassedy Cangemi and Madisyn Davis were newcomers last season and contributed to a pitching rotation that had a 2.32 ERA.
Esparza has been the starter at first base over majority of her four seasons, and was having her best season as a Knight in 2020, hitting .321 with a .491 slugging percentage and 16 runs batted in. Esparza was part of a Knights offense that was having a historic season, hitting .310 as a team and averaging 5.7 runs per game, which was on pace to shatter the school record.
Esparza figures to be at first base along with Shannon Doherty, who was the team’s leading hitter in 2020, hitting .443. Doherty can play first base and DP. Justine Molina fit in well at second base in 2020, after coming over from Boise State, hitting .319 in 2020. Georgia Blair started at shortstop, leading the team with six homers and slugging .570.
Jada Cody started most of games at third base, hitting .315 with three homers and 18 runs batted in. Karissa Ornelas was primary catcher had a huge sophomore season, hitting .387, which was second-best on team.
Klarkowski has been the full-time starting centerfielder since her sophomore season and is in the mix to be greatest UCF defense centerfielder in program history. Klarkowski had a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage to go along with two assists on the season, which put her with two away from Vanessa Perez’s (2009-2012) record of most assists by any outfielder in program history with 15.
Klarkowski figures to lead the outfield alongside Denali Schappacher, who started in LF and RF in 2020, hitting .290 with a .402 on-base percentage. Other outfielders include Julaiana Wilson (.536 slugging in 2020), Kasey Fava, and Haley and Madelyn Bejarano.
While Cindy Ball-Malone will face the issue of a big roster like many will in college softball in 2021, no one is better equipped to handle it than Ball-Malone, who uses her bench frequently during games for both offensive and defensive purposes. So key players Damaria Cannon, Kaitlin Jenson, Molly Rainey, Takiya London, and Montana Szara all had key roles in 2020 and will get playing time as well.
The Knights will also have a strong 2020 signing class coming in.
2021 sets up to be one of most anticipated for Knights, who could be in the preseason top 25 polls and be the favorites to win The American, with White returning to compete against pitching rival Georgina Corrick of South Florida for top pitcher in league.
2021 will also mark the program’s 20th season and it is fitting that three of the program’s fan favorites will be able to be part of it.
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2015 UCF Softball
May 9, 2015. @UCF_Softball won @American_SBall Championship at #UCF vs Tulsa 1-0 on Samantha McCloskey walk-off HR. Check out special edition of @UCF_Banneret Rewind Podcast as we talk with Mackenzie Audas & @shelbyturnier7 on the historical 2015 season. https://t.co/pKGzb7cr62— Eric Lopez (@EricLopezELO) May 10, 2020
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