The UCF Knights came up short in the American Softball Championship, losing to Wichita State 7-4 on Saturday. Jazmine Esparza had an incredible performance with two homers, including a two-run homer in the top of the first to give UCF a 2-0 lead.
But the Shockers’ offense, which is one of best in country especially with the long ball, hit three homers in the game and scored seven unanswered runs after being down 3-0, including five in the 5th inning to take a 7-3 lead. The Knights got within 7-4 on homer by Esparza in the 6th, making her the third Knight to hit two homers in an AAC Tournament game alongside Farrah Sullivan and Mariah Garcia who hit 2 homers each in Houston vs UConn in Quarterfinal game in 2014. With 44 RBI this season, Esparza is 4th in the Knights’ single-season annals behind only UCF Hall of Famer Stephanie Best (66 in 2003, 60 in 2005, 48 in 2004).
The Knights threatened in the 7th, putting on two on with two out for Esparza, but she grounded out to end the game.
So the Knights now stand at 39-17-1 on the season. The selection show is Sunday Night at 9 p.m. on ESPN2. So let’s address the two big questions for Sunday:
Will UCF make the NCAA Tournament?
Yes! The Knights’ RPI was 32 entering Saturday’s championship game with two wins over Top-5 Florida and a win over Arizona. The Knights also have wins at South Carolina as well as four wins against South Florida. UCF finished second in the 5th-strongest conference in College Softball. Their overall schedule strength is 73rd with their non-conference schedule strength at 45th. All good numbers.
UCF is likely a 2-seed, or at worst, a strong 3-seed in whichever regional they go to.
Where will UCF go?
OK, this is where the intrigue is. There are three real scenarios:
Scenario 1: Gainesville (50% chance)
Gainesville is no strange place for UCF Softball, as in the Knights’ previous seven trips to the NCAA Tournament they have been sent there six times. Plus, the committee likes to bus teams who are within a 400-mile radius of a regional site. So here is how the regional would likely look like IF UCF is sent to Gainesville. (RPI entering Saturday)
- Florida (RPI #3)
- UCF (RPI #32)
- Troy (RPI #46)
- Alabama State (RPI #252)
UCF, Troy and Alabama State all can bus to Gainesville, which will be appealing to the committee. Troy is from the Sun Belt, led by star pitcher Leanna Johnson. Alabama State is the conference champion from the SWAC.
If the committee decides to fly a team to Gainesville to play UCF, it will be likely a team from the Big 12, like Iowa State or Baylor, or perhaps James Madison of the CAA, or even the Pac 12’s Stanford, who was in Gainesville in 2019, or maybe a Big Ten team like Minnesota, Northwestern or even Iowa if they make the tournament [HMMM].
I believe it will be Troy in Gainesville if they make the NCAA Tournament.
Scenario 2: Tallahassee (45% chance)
If UCF does not go to Gainesville, they will likely go to Tallahassee, like they did in 2015. The Knights and Seminoles did not play in 2021, which the committee may like, but they also have a ton of options to bus teams into Tallahassee. Let’s look at some of the potential opponents for UCF if they go to Tallahassee:
- Florida State (RPI #8)
- UCF (#32)
- An SEC team, possibly Georgia (#18), Mississippi State (#28), Auburn (#24), or South Carolina (#44)
- A small conference team, likely flying in
Depending on SEC team, the Knights could be either a 2-seed or a 3-seed. The four SEC teams I mentioned all can bus to Tallahassee, and the committee always puts an SEC team in the Tallahassee regional because it’s too easy not to.
UCF played a three-game set at South Carolina this year, and those two also played each other in the 2015 regional in Tallahassee.
If South Florida makes the NCAA Tournament, they are likely the 3-seed in Tallahassee, as it makes more sense from a seeding standpoint. But if the Bulls do not make the field or decide to bus them to Gainesville, perhaps the committee decides to bus UCF to Tallahassee.
Scenario 3: Sent out of state (5% chance)
Maybe the Softball committee will do what the Baseball committee did for UCF in 2001 and fly them out of the state. The 2001 Knights’ baseball team was sent to South Carolina as a No. 1 seed.
Baseball is more creative than the Softball committee when it comes to traveling. But if they were to send the Knights out of state for the first time ever, then Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Arkansas or even a Pac-12 host site would be a likely spot to send UCF. History suggests, however, that the Knights will not have to get on a plane.
Regardless of where UCF is sent on Sunday night, it will be a night of celebration and joy for this group, as they would have led UCF back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.