With much of the crowd standing and cheering, the potential tying run at the plate and a bit of history waiting at her fingertips, UCF freshman sensation Mackenzie Audas ignored her nerves and mowed down the final Florida batter just as she had done all night.
And minutes after the calm and cool standout pitcher authored a dazzling two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout in UCF’s historic 2-0 defeat of the No. 3 Gators, Audas uttered what might go down as the understatement of the season.
“This is kind of a big deal,” said Audas, who has evolved into arguably the best freshman pitcher in the country.
Freshman Farrah Sullivan, UCF’s hottest hitter the past three weeks, doubled in two runs in the first inning and Audas did the rest as UCF (30-10) beat Florida (34-5) for the first time ever in Orlando. The Knights’ 10th straight victory this season was their third in school history against the Gators and their first since May 18, 2008, in the NCAA Tournament.
A crowd of 747 fans – the second-largest in school history – packed the UCF Softball Complex and was loud from the first pitch. The grounds crew also rolled up two outfield wind screens, allowing a couple hundred more fans to watch the game and add to the electric atmosphere.
“The crowd was amazing. It felt like a football game,” Sullivan said. “Words can’t describe the feeling of this. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
After blanking the third-ranked Gators, the surging Knights have bettered their chances of cracking the top 25 and getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
“It’s our first home win against Florida, and that’s big,” UCF head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie said. “Mac (Audas) had a great game, catcher Hayley (Barrow) did a great job calling the game, and we made the plays and got the hits that we needed. It was a one-hit difference in the game, but thankfully it was our turn after 10 years of playing them here.”
The unquestioned star of the night was Audas, the 5-foot-5 right-hander from Plant City who dominated a Florida program that never recruited her. Audas (16-5), who entered the game with the lowest ERA in the country for a freshman, tossed her eighth shutout of the season. Her 11-strikeout performance was the sixth time that she had a double-digit strikeout game.
“She’s had some ups and downs and we’ve talked about how it has to be one pitch at a time and she had to focus on each batter as a separate situation and go hard at them,” Luers-Gillispie said. “I told her that she will always have to tools to strike anybody out. She worked hard on focusing on one pitch at a time. And she didn’t have those ups and downs and stayed very steady.”
A true sign of Audas’ razor-sharp focus on Wednesday night was her ability to summon big pitches in key situations. Six Florida batters reached a full count against Audas, but she struck out three of them and none got hits. The two hits in the game were a line drive to center in the third inning and a bunt single in the sixth.
“In the first inning, it’s Florida and they’re ranked, and I was nervous,” Audas admitted. “I faced UCLA and Washington early in the year, but this was Florida. I was pretty nervous early, but I settled down. I knew I couldn’t give a team like this free bases. So I just kept trying to go right at them all night.”
UCF finished with just three hits against Florida’s Hannah Rogers (20-3), but the biggest one of the night came in the first inning in a clutch situation. Sullivan doubled down the left-field line to score two runners and put the Knights up 2-0. Senior shortstop Natalie Land started the rally by beating out an infield hit and stealing second. Then, after Vanessa Perez walked, Sullivan stroked a fastball down the line that got all the way to the wall.
The clutch double was just the latest big hit for Sullivan, who almost single-handedly destroyed UTEP in a three-game sweep last weekend in West Texas. Sullivan had three home runs, two doubles and nine RBI last Friday in a double-header sweep for the Knights.
Wednesday night’s double will go down as one of the most important hits in school history.
“It was an inside pitch, and I had two strikes on me. I feel like that relaxed me. I just saw the ball and hit it,” said Sullivan, a Waynesboro, Miss., native who leads the team in home runs (five), doubles (nine) and RBI (29). “I knew if we got a head start on them that Mackenzie would take care of them. I knew if we got some runs she would come through and take care of business.”