As UCF approaches its inaugural season as the youngest member of a Power 5 conference, the athletics department is taking a look back to commemorate this special moment in history. The following feature is a part of UCF’s 12 for XII series — 12 stories that define UCF and the meteoric rise of the Knights in their journey to the Big 12 Conference. This story was originally published March 1, 2023, and was updated June 16, 2023, because of the continued success of our women’s programs.
Three years after Title IX legislation was passed in 1972 — opening doors for women and girls to compete in sports — UCF fielded its first women’s varsity program, volleyball. In three years’ time, the Knights won their first national title in 1978 as part of the now defunct Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).
Today, 199 Knights compete in 10 sports plus the spirit program. And that hunger to rise above their peers is as ever present today as it was in those early years.
Suffice to say, since the inception of women’s programs at UCF, their impact on the athletic department, university and society around them has been immeasurable.
They oversaw the creation of Knightro. UCF’s only NCAA champion is a woman. They have climbed to some of the highest national rankings in school history. They’ve been chosen for the university’s highest academic honor, the Order of Pegasus.
They’ve earned gold at the Olympic Games, served as team captains in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, won the British Amateur, competed in professional leagues globally and served key leadership roles in athletic departments around the country. They’ve also become doctors, Emmy-winning producers, educators, coaches, engineers, marketing professionals, art directors and the list goes on.
By the Numbers
The UCF women’s golf team claimed the first conference championship by a UCF women’s program in the 1991-92 season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Over the last three decades as they have transitioned through four conferences, the Knight women’s teams have collectively won 115 conference regular-season and tournament titles.
They dominated the Atlantic Sun, continued greatness in Conference USA and finished their decade in the American, responsible for 38 of UCF’s 52 AAC regular season and tournament championships — more than double of the next closest league counterpart (Houston, 17).
As far as dynasties go, UCF women’s rowing and volleyball are two of four AAC women’s programs that have won at least five consecutive conference championships (joining UConn women’s basketball’s seven titles and Houston’s swimming and diving’s seven crowns).
“We are incredibly proud of our women’s teams for their incredible accomplishments they have displayed over the years,” says Terry Mohajir, UCF vice president and director of UCF Athletics. “We have no doubt they are more than ready to continue to carry on that tradition of success into the Big 12.”
When it comes to performing at an elite level year after year, few have done it better than the UCF spirit program.
The cheer team has placed among the top 10 in the country at UCA Nationals in 28 of the last 30 years. They’ve won three UCA national championships (2003, 2007 and 2020) and another gameday national championship (2019).
And they’re not the only Knights who are accustomed to a sustained level of greatness.
Two of UCF’s women’s teams rank in their respective NCAA record book for winning. The women’s soccer program — the same program that produced GOAT Michelle Akers ’89 — ranks among the NCAA’s top 15 all-time for consecutive winning seasons at 18 (2001-2019). The volleyball team ranks among the NCAA’s top 25 all-time for winningest programs (1107 victories over 48 years through 2022).
Fresh off another stellar championship year, let’s just pause for a moment at volleyball and appreciate all that outside hitter and graduate student McKenna Melville ’21 achieved in 2022. She is not only a shoe-in as a future UCF Hall of Famer, but she also cemented her status as one of the best to do it in the sport of collegiate volleyball, elevating the Knights to another level of notoriety in the process.
The track and field teams bid to the 2023 NCAA outdoor championship marked the the department’s 131th postseason appearance.
From the softball team’s record-smashing ride to the 2022 NCAA Super Regionals to the women’s basketball team’s highest seeding and first NCAA Championship win in program history in 2022, to the women’s golf squad advancing to the finals of the 2019 NCAA Championship to the women’s tennis team’s back-to-back Sweet 16 showings in 2019 and 2021, the Knights have all relished in their share of postseason highlights over the years.
In the running for UCF’s brightest postseason moment is a big feat that took place 10 years ago on an indoor track in Arkansas.
On March 9, 2013, a sprinter from Greenbelt, Maryland, achieved something that no one else at UCF ever had done before, or since: win an individual NCAA championship.
Aurieyall Scott matched her personal record 7.13 in the 60 meters. At the time, it marked the fifth-fastest time in collegiate history. She edged Oregon’s reigning champion and future Olympic gold and silver medalist English Gardner and was joined on the medalist stand by her teammate and roommate Octavious Freeman, who finished third.
Coupled with their silver and bronze finishes in the 200-meter finals, Scott and Freeman were responsible for scoring the most points in program history (30) at the NCAA Championships for the Knights’ best team finish at fifth place — records that still stand today.
“I just wanted to go the school where they didn’t have anything. I wanted to be the one to start the program or help start it and be the first at something and create history,” says Scott. “And that’s what we did.”
Ahead of the Curve
UCF’s student-athletes are equally as impressive in the classroom.
More than 65 student-athletes have been recognized as exceptional academic standouts by the USTFCCCA, NSCAA/United Soccer Coaches, WBCA, NFCA, WGCA, AVCA, CRCA, College Sports Communicators, Capital One and USRowing.
Perfect 1,000 scores for UCF women’s teams in cross country, golf and volleyball led the way in last June’s Academic Progress Rate data released by the NCAA. The APR score takes into account graduation, retention and eligibility to determine a clear picture of the current academic culture of a program.
Among American Athletic Conference programs’ APR performance, UCF women’s cross country, women’s golf and women’s volleyball all tied for first; women’s track and field was second; softball (tie) was third; women’s soccer was fourth, and women’s basketball and rowing fifth in the multi-year scores.
In 2001, cross country runner Sarah Kureshi ’01 was named the state of Florida’s NCAA Woman of the Year.
Since the inception of the Order of Pegasus in 2001, 15 of the 24 student-athletes to be selected for the university’s most prestigious student award are women: Sarah Kureshi ’01, Shelly Frick ’08 ’10MBA, Kayli Keough ’12 ’13, Chelsey Lauzon ’12, Kaye-Alese Green ’13 ’15MA, Halle Scott ’17, Bailey Ranson ’19, Taylor Wickey ’16 ’18MS, Adrienne Li ’19, Alli Sabol ’19, Julie Poulsen ’20, McKenna Melville ’21, Cydni Turner ’22,Rayniah Jones and Shannon Doherty.
“Our student-athletes are taking full advantage of the opportunities here at UCF to better themselves with a quality education from one of the most innovative universities in the country,” says Tara Helton, associate athletics director for academic services for student-athletes. “We are committed to fostering an environment that develops them holistically and gives them the tools to succeed beyond their athletic pursuits. And the numbers speak for themselves. Our women have consistently put in the work to set and reset the standard of excellence.”
Following their competitive and academic careers at UCF, Knights have gone on to pursue incredible and varied professional opportunities.
While there are thousands of former UCF student-athletes making their impact on the world, we’ve highlighted a few here to illustrate the depth and scope of their work.
XC – Sarah Kureshi ’01, associate professor and vice chair for education, department of family medicine at Georgetown University
T&F – Christal Peterson ’15 ’18MBA ’18MS, director of student-athlete development at University of Houston
WBB – Nyala Shuler ’16 ’19MS ’22, AdventHealth registered nurse
WSOC – Kim Wyant ’89, NYU men’s soccer head coach
Softball – Abby McClain ’11, veterinarian, National Marine Mammal Foundation in support of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
Volleyball – DeLaina Sarden ’15, principal at Parker Executive Search
WTennis – Sofia Baptista ’16 ’18MS, structural engineer at Jacobs
WGolf – Fanny Cnops ’14 ’15, team manager for Belgium Golf Federation
Rowing – Erin Riegel ’08, art director and assistant art director on projects for Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, NETFLIX, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, ABC Television, and more.
Setting the Standard
The UCF women’s teams have been put in a position to succeed thanks in part to a commitment to empowering strong women to lead them.
According to USAFacts.org, 95% of NCAA men’s sports teams employed head coaches identifying as men in 2020 from data pulled through the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics. The data also shows that men hold the majority of head coaching roles for women’s teams at 57%.
This is not the case at UCF, where 90% of the women’s teams are led by women head coaches.
Every year, a Racial and Gender Report Card is compiled by graduate students in UCF’s DeVos Sport Business Management program and published annually by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). The report card examines the racial and gender makeup of players, coaches and staff in America’s professional sports organizations.
Although the institute doesn’t compile race and gender report cards on individual college athletic departments yet, it did complete a special report card in 2017 in honor of the 45th anniversary of Title IX. That special report examined the Power Five conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12), Big East, Ivy League and American Athletic Conference.
UCF was the only school in the country to earn an A grade for racial and gender hiring practices of head coaches across women’s teams.
Combined, this group hold 15 American Athletic Coach of the Year honors.
In addition to their head coaching duties, Cindy Ball-Malone (softball) and Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak (women’s soccer) are currently serving as assistant coaches for United States national teams. UCF Track and Field’s Dana Boone guided Rayniah Jones to the 100-meter hurdles semifinals at the 2020 US Olympic Trials.
“We recognize the importance and value of placing strong female leadership in front of our student-athletes,” says Abby Wilson, deputy athletics director and senior woman administrator. “Our head coaches are highly accomplished — their resumes speak for themselves. They are proof that you can be who you want to be, pursue whatever goal you set for yourself and achieve at the highest level.”
Support for Women
Student-athletes. Scholars. All-Americans. Champions. Our women’s sports teams can compete with anyone — especially when they have the resources and support that empower them to not just chase their goals, but achieve them.
Your gift today will help ensure the Knights’ continued success and inspire the next generation of women ready to carry the torch.