The UCF Knights Softball team are the 2023 American Athletic Conference Tournament Champions.
Behind the performance of AAC Pitcher of the Year Sarah Willis, the #2-seed Knights went into enemy territory on USF’s campus, overcame a huge deficit, vanquished a rival, and eventually and left with their second straight AAC trophy.
Let’s go over the team’s performance in the tournament to see how they came out on top!
Game 1: Seven Straight Runs
The Knights started off the tournament by taking on the seventh-seeded Memphis Tigers. UCF struggled defensively early on giving up walks, hitting batters, and throwing wild pitches. This culminated with them being down 4-0 as they entered the bottom of the 3rd. Starter Grace Jewell was taken out of the game after two innings and was replaced by Willis.
The Knights’ fortunes would soon change, however, and that change came after one play. After scoring their first run in the bottom of the third thanks to a Jada Cody SAC fly, it looked like Memphis was going to take on some more runs. However, the Knights prevented this with a huge double play. After the play, you could see the player’s energy change. Even head coach Cindy Ball-Malone came out of the dugout fired up, swinging her arms and yelling.
“I knew it was a big-time moment,” Ball-Malone said.
Following this moment, not only would the Knights go on to score seven straight runs to win the game, they would go on to only give up one more run in the rest of the tournament.
The team would score two runs in the bottom half of the 5th inning before taking the lead in the 6th, thanks to a Jasmine Williams two-run home run.
Following an Aubrey Evans’ two-RBI single later that inning, the Knights finished off Memphis to win 7-4.
Williams was the star offensive performer of the game. She was one-for-two at the plate and had three RBIs. She said that despite going down early, she still knew her team would come out on top.
There was never any doubt in our mind that we were going to lose that game,” Williams said. “Our team is very resilient. We have a lot of fire under us.”
Game 2: Shutout
While the Knights were the designated home team for their second tournament game, it was basically a road game as they had to take on their rival, the three-seeded USF Bulls, in their home stadium.
Although the Knights struggled defensively in the previous game, the exact opposite happened in this game as they shout out the USF to win 2-0. The win was the team’s 12 straight victories over their War on I-4 rival.
Leading the way for the defense was once again Willis. After pitching five innings and getting the win the previous day, she started on the mound and went the distance. She pitched the full seven innings, giving up only four hits. Despite pitching 12 consecutive innings, Willis said she felt like what she did was not too challenging.
“We’ve really been taking good care of our bodies,” Willis said. “I feel like just fueling with food, water, Gatorade, salt tabs, and then we also cold tubbed after our game yesterday.”
The Knights’ only runs came in the 1st inning when Chloe Evans hit a two-run home run, which extended her hitting streak to 17. Evans said that she is really proud of her streak, which is now the longest in school history, because she knows how much it benefits the team.
“I think it’s just really important that I’m getting hits for the team,” Evans said. “It’s about moving runners, getting on base, scoring runs, doing whatever I can to be my best at the plate and to help out the pitchers.”
As mentioned, the defense made it so that Evans’ home run was all that they needed to get the win. And after giving up four runs early on the previous day, Ball-Malone said she was happy to see a much tighter defensive performance.
“Defense wins championships,” Ball-Malone said.
Game 3: Run Ruling to Win a Title
The Knights didn’t need seven innings to become champions. The team run-ruled the fourth-seeded Tulsa Golden Hurricanes 9-1 in five innings to win their second straight AAC tournament title.
Just like she did in the previous game, Willis was given the start again. She pitched all five innings, giving up only three hits and one run.
The Knights’ offense was the real star of the game. The team combined for 13 hits and scored in all but one inning.
Leading the way for the team was Williams who went three-for-three and had two RBIs, including her second home run of the tournament, and Aubrey Evans who went three-for-four at the plate with two RBIs. Evans’ RBI single in the fifth was what ended the game in a run rule. She said after the game that she was extremely grateful and appreciative of what she and her team had just accomplished.
“It means everything to us,” Evans said. “I mean that was our last American conference game and it was our goal to go out on top, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Ball-Malone said that after all that had happened this season, for the team to finish the season as conference champions was something that made her feel extremely happy.
“I’m just incredibly proud of this group,” Ball-Malone said. “They have gone through so much adversity. From the crazy schedule, we had set up, to some injuries, to just trying to figure out our roles on our team. I’m just incredibly proud of their fight and how they’ve continued to get stronger in every game we’ve played.”
By winning the tournament, the team has undoubtedly punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament. They will find out on Sunday who and where they will be playing.
Player of the Series
Willis wasn’t just the best player from UCF. She was the best player in the entire tournament. For her performance, she was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. She pitched 17 consecutive innings and earned the win in all three games. She only allowed nine hits and three runs. As a batter, she also went two-for-seven with one RBI.