With the American Athletic Conference Tournament on the horizon, it’s only a matter of time until fans find out if the UCF Knights Softball team can end the season with just as big a bang as it began.
1B Shannon Doherty may not light up the season-long stat sheets like senior Denali Schappacher or fellow sophomore Jada Cody, but what she had was a competitive spirit and a trilogy of walk-off hits: a home run vs. No. 12 Georgia, another vs. Ole Miss, and an RBI double vs. No. 5 Virginia Tech.
Doherty said her teammates were an “instrumental” part of her success in those moments, and not just for their on-field contributions.
“Honestly, I’m just up there and I look back in the dugout and those girls have an unbelievable amount of confidence in me, and [head coach Cindy Ball-Malone] has an unbelievable amount of confidence in me,” Doherty said. “At that point, I feel like I just have no choice but to have confidence in myself. I owe it to them, I owe it to myself, I owe it to everyone that’s given me all the opportunities to get to that point.”
One such person was her father, John Doherty. He said, despite it sounding like the name of a certain “Beverly Hills 90210” actress, his daughter is actually named after the River Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles that cuts through the heart of Ireland, as a nod to her family’s Irish heritage.
As a child, Doherty followed in the footsteps of her father, grandfather, and brother by playing baseball. She was a catcher, first baseman, and a pitcher, where she loved “striking out the boys,” John Doherty said. However, by the age of 12, she made what her father called the “inevitable” switch to softball.
“Shannon has always worked hard and, even as a young player, exemplified leadership qualities,” John Doherty said. “She continues to do this but it’s definitely next level. Failure is not an option for her.”
It turns out, failure to join UCF Softball’s roster was not an option either. Doherty said she had initially fallen in love with the program because it fit a life philosophy she has where she never wants to hit her peak and always be on an “upward slope.” However, after the head coach that recruited her, Renee Luers-Gillispie, departed for Iowa in 2018, Doherty said she spoke with current head coach Cindy Ball-Malone over the phone and “fell in love with the school all over again.”
“At that point, there was nothing that was gonna stop me from being here,” Doherty said.
It’s this sort of passion for the UCF program, and the game of softball in general, where Doherty said her now-iconic bat flip after her Ole Miss home run came from.
“All people talk about is that I ask to be in those situations, but there’s plenty of times I’ve been in those situations, and it didn’t work out that way,” Doherty said. “So, when it does work out, I’m gonna be excited.”
After several conversations with Ball-Malone over the phone, Doherty and her family traveled from their hometown, Coral Springs, to Ball-Malone’s native California for one of the head coach’s summer satellite camps. She said she wanted to get in front of Ball-Malone and give her no choice but to keep her.
“What stood out to me was teaching her how to throw on the run and she just kept doing it and was super coachable and came back to our next camp and had it mastered,” Ball-Malone said. “That was like, ‘Okay, this kid, I’m digging her.’”
Doherty’s performance in the camp not only demonstrated her softball prowess and developmental potential, but it also showcased something Ball-Malone said was the reason she trusted Doherty with a regular role with UCF as a true freshman—work ethic.
“Whatever you put in front of her she’s gonna work her tail off to master it and absolutely dominate it,” Ball-Malone said. “I can put my trust into that.”
Once Doherty secured her place on the Knights thanks to her fielding skills, her first season showed off her skills at the plate. Before the COVID-19 pandemic cut it short, Doherty led the team with a .443 batting average and a .507 on-base percentage. She did all this mainly as the designated player, with some stints at first base to prepare her to succeed then-senior Jazmine Esparza.
“She was on top of everything, she made sure that she made herself known and she did very well and she was good,” Esparza said. “I knew from the get-go that we were going to go back and forth for a while.”
In the end, that back and forth would be for a bit longer than “a while,” since the two spent an extra season together thanks to the pandemic. Esparza, now an assistant coach for College of the Canyons, said the extra year allowed her to teach Doherty how to be a little more vocal on the field.
Meanwhile, Doherty said having the fifth-year seniors like Esparza an extra year facilitated growth in the program’s culture.
“I think they really cherish those moments and they realized that they want to give everything they have to us so that we can continue to grow this program,” Doherty said. “So, I think that it kind of puts things in perspective for everyone, and they really helped leaders like me and Jada [Cody] and Gianna [Mancha] and Denali [Schappacher]. They really helped us grow so we would be ready for this year.”
Esparza said she has seen every single one of Doherty’s walk-offs.
In that batter’s box, she saw a Doherty who was still the athlete and competitor that she always was, but also one that had grown as a leader. A Doherty that did not let the fact that she had only one or even no hits earlier in the game get to her. A Doherty that cut at the ball just like her namesake cuts through Ireland.
Yet, even as she heads into her second-ever conference tournament, this is just the halfway point of Doherty’s story.
“Watching those and watching her continuously excel in this game, it just makes me happy because it’s something I know she can be even better at,” Esparza said. “And she’s still young. That’s the best part about it.”
“She’s still young.”