Culture, experience the difference for UCF softball entering NCAA tournament
Fresh off a second straight American Athletic Conference tournament championship, UCF softball is entering the NCAA tournament looking to make more noise in the postseason.
The Knights have won 13 games in a row and 21 of their last 24 dating to the end of March.
This season, however, hasn’t always gone as smoothly as it is right now for UCF.
The Knights opened March at 9-8 before eventually falling to 10-13 overall. UCF was able to enter the start of AAC play at 18-16 but found itself riding a 3-game losing streak heading into a Wichita State series that was challenging enough on its own.
The Shockers won two out of three games in Orlando as the Knights stumbled to open league action.
UCF coach Cindy Ball-Malone began to question herself about the non-conference schedule she put together.
“It was a tough schedule,” she said. “Sometimes it felt like not the greatest decision.”
Eleven of UCF’s 37 non-conference opponents made the NCAA tournament, with four (Georgia, Duke, UCLA and Alabama) selected to host a regional as a top-16 national seed.
Despite the self-doubt, things began to click for the Knights in April. The team dropped just one game following March 26, and the confidence returned.
“When you get to this point, you really believe in it and trust the process,” Ball-Malone said. “It was the best decision for us.
“Not only the opponents we played but the travel schedule that we had, the game times and the atmospheres that we played in all have prepared us for what we’re going to go up against this weekend.”
The Knights now have to put the regular season and AAC title behind them and focus on advancing to a Super Regional for the second year in a row.
In order to do so, UCF will have to advance out of the Tallahassee Regional, which will be hosted by No. 3 national seed FSU this weekend. The Knights are joined by Marist and South Carolina, the latter of whom they’ll face Friday night.
“I said right after the American tournament that we’re prepared to play anybody and in the postseason, it doesn’t really matter who you’re playing [because] it’s tough and your best game is required,” Ball-Malone said.
UCF is familiar with its first opponent, South Carolina. The teams have played each other five times in the past two seasons.
The Knights are also not strangers to the host Seminoles. UCF traveled to the NCAA Tallahassee Regional in 2015 and 2021 and the sides have met in the regular season over the years, too.
That experience is huge for the team, according to first baseman Shannon Doherty.
“A few of us on the team were at that Tallahassee Regional two years ago,” she said. “Having that experience and having that knowledge of what exactly to expect is going to be huge for us because we’re going to be able to share with people that have never been there before.”
UCF will look to ride the arm of AAC pitcher of the year Sarah Willis, who was named the league tournament’s most outstanding player after going to the distance twice en route to the conference title.
“Just like Kama Woodall last year, the rise ball is developing and coming in at the right time,” Ball-Malone said. “I’m expecting her to just pick up right where she left off.”
Willis has help, too.
“We also have a dynamic pitching staff, so I feel really good about how they complement each other and all of the experience they’ve had the entire year.”
Despite the challenging start to the season, the Knights never turned on each other. In fact, they did the opposite and returned to their winning ways from a season ago.
Ball-Malone credits the program’s culture.
“Culture starts with an idea from the head coach and the rest of the coaching staff but our athletes and our women really put it into play,” she said. “For our women to really buy into who we are and understand that it’s not about ‘me’ and ‘I’ — it’s about how far we can get this team to go — it’s really difficult in today’s age.”
That culture along with the team’s experience is what makes this team confident — and dangerous — entering the NCAA tournament.
“We’re going to be a tough out because we’re versatile,” Doherty said. “We’ve got everything there is. I don’t think you can ever count us out.”
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