Behind a three-hit complete-game outing in the circle by senior Diana Rojas (Miami, Fla.), the No. 6 UCF (22-31) softball team upset No. 3 UAB (38-17), 2-1, Thursday afternoon in the opening round of the Conference USA Championship hosted by East Carolina at the ECU Softball Complex. With the victory, the Knights advance to the semifinals vs. No. 2 Tulsa Friday afternoon at 2 p.m.
“This is great,” Rojas said after the game. “It’s awesome for us to come out here and win our first game. It was a close game but it was a great game. That means a lot to the team, coaches and everyone. It’s a big deal for us to come out here and beat them like we did today.”
The Black and Gold will make its fourth appearance in a C-USA semifinal contest in the last five years, advancing to the championship game in both 2008 and 2010.
Rojas improved her record to 10-13 on the season with her gem in the circle against the Blazers. She allowed only one run on three hits with two walks and a strikeout in her 15th complete-game outing of 2011.
“Diana had a great, great showing out there,” head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie said. “She stayed calm, poised and did very well getting the big outs when she needed them. She worked all year long on trying to get ahead of hitters and trying to work the whole plate and she did exactly that. Her curveball was working great and she took advantage of that when she could. She kept them off balance and threw some key changeups that kept UAB’s tempo off with the bats. I was very proud of the way she performed.”
Offensively, the Black and Gold scattered seven hits off UAB’s pitching duo of Alisha Smith and Leigh Streetman. Tawny Swan (Gilbert, Ariz.) paced the squad with a 2-for-2 performance at the plate, while Allie Jest (Stone Mountain, Ga.), Natalie Land (Mayo, Fla.), Abby McClain (Waterloo, Iowa), Tiffany Lane (Moreno Valley, Calif.) and Patrice Fee (Cocoa, Fla.) accounted for UCF’s additional five hits.
McClain and Lane each scored a run for the visiting Black and Gold, and Kellie Todd (Ocala, Fla.) posted the only RBI for UCF in the fourth inning.
Every run of the opening-round contest was scored in the fourth inning, with the Knights scoring two in the top of the frame and the Blazers putting up one in the bottom of the inning. UCF effectively played the small-ball game to produce runs in that inning, bunting twice to load the bases in the frame and knock Smith out of the contest.
The Black and Gold loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the fourth inning on back-to-back singles from McClain and Lane and a fielder’s choice off the bat of Menendez to open the frame. Todd hit a RBI ground out to second base to bring in UCF’s first run of the contest, before a catcher’s interference call at the plate once again loaded the bases for the Knights. Fee put the ball in play and a fielding error by UAB’s third baseman allowed Lane to touch home safely and gave UCF a 2-0 lead heading into the bottom of the fourth frame.
UAB cut the Knights’ lead to one run in the home half of the inning on a leadoff walk and a single down the left field line by Kristen McGrath, but Rojas and the Knights were able to hold the Blazers scoreless for the next three innings to advance to the semifinal round of the C-USA Championship for the fourth time in the last five years.
No. 2 Tulsa will stand in the way of No. 6 UCF making a return trip to the C-USA Championship Game. The Golden Hurricane defeated No. 7 Marshall, 10-0, in five innings earlier in the day to advance to the semifinal contest vs. the Knights. Tulsa enters the contest with a 42-12 overall record and holds an 8-11 advantage in the all-time series vs. the Black and Gold after sweeping the Knights at Donna J. Hardesty Softball Complex during the regular season.
“Tulsa is just a real tough team,” Luers-Gillispie said. “Pitching is the key for them. You can’t make mistakes against a team like Tulsa or they’ll make you pay. We need to keep it within one run and we’ll have a chance tomorrow. I don’t know if they will throw [Aimee] Creger again but my guess is they will stick with her until she wears down. We have to take care of our own business. We have to slow the game down a little bit and play the small game. If we do those things we have a chance and we should be fine.”