For the first time in program history, the No. 16 UCF softball team has advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals. They went through the Orlando Regional unscathed, beating No. 24 Michigan by a score of 9-4 in the regional final on Sunday.
“We started this year talking about Team XXI and just saying ‘playing with no regrets,'” says head coach Cindy Ball-Malone. “They’ve done it. We’re not done; we’re definitely not done. (I’m) just so proud of the fight of this team. I’m super proud of these women and what they’ve done and the odds that they’ve fought against. The show keeps going.”
The Knights jumped on the Wolverines from the start as Allyse Volpe fouled off four straight pitches before dropping one into right field to lead off the game. She was pinch ran for by Denali Schappacher, who was able to scamper in just ahead of the throw after Kennedy Searcy grounded one to the pitcher, who threw to second too late. With one out, Shannon Doherty singled up the middle, just behind the second base bag, allowing everyone to advance safely. With two down in the inning, yesterday’s hero, Maddie Bejarano, drew a four pitch walk to send Schappacher home for the 1-0 lead. Johneisha Rowe followed suit, drawing a five pitch walk to push Searcy across. Rowe’s walk chased Michigan starter Meghan Beaubien in favor of Annabelle Widra. The changing of arms resulted in the same result as Justene Molina drew a four pitch walk to push UCF’s lead to 3-0. Micaela Macario tried to keep the line moving and nearly did, but it took a sliding catch from the Michigan left fielder to end the side. The Knights sent all nine batters to the plate in the inning.
Michigan scratched two runs across in the bottom of the third inning. The inning started with an error at by the shortstop Macario. The next batter chopped one to second as Molina had to charge and make a tough throw to first. The ball got away, advancing the runners to second and third. A Kristina Burkhardt single up the middle plated both runners to cut the deficit to 5-2. After allowing two runs without recording an out, the Knights escaped the rest of the inning unscathed.
The Wolverines took another step in the road to mounting a comeback, putting another run on the board in the bottom of the fifth. Michigan drew a leadoff walk to start the frame; the run eventually came around to score on a Lexie Blair single up the middle to make it 5-3.
UCF answered back immediately and started the inning off with a bang as Searcy doubled to right-centerfield. Michigan pitched around Cody to put two on with nobody out. After the first out was recorded, Griffin stepped up to the plate and laced a single to left center, driving in a run. Cody was flying around the bases and was waved around to score after the Wolverine’s left fielder made an error retrieving the ball. Rowe kept the momentum going, smashing a hot shot through the left side of the infield, where the shortstop and third baseman were playing in. The hit allowed Katie Burge, who pinch ran for Griffin, to score, making it an 8-3 game.
Michigan saw two of their first three batters in the bottom of the sixth inning reach base, causing head coach Ball-Malone to lift starter Gianna Mancha from the ballgame. Kama Woodall, fresh off a 181 pitch, 11 inning outing, came in and shut down the inning, getting a ground ball and a strikeout to escape the jam. Mancha finished the afternoon with 5.1 innings of work, allowing just one earned run with five strikeouts. She improved her record to 23-3 with the victory and dropped her ERA to 1.62.
UCF added one more in the top of the seventh inning as Griffin struck again, this time lining one out to the right fielder, pushing across a run on a sacrifice fly for her third RBI of the afternoon. Michigan took a run back in the bottom of the inning as an unearned run came into score. With two on and one out, Woodall got the next batter to groundout, followed by a line drive to Macario at shortstop to send the Knights to their first super regional.
Woodall finished her relief outing by tossing an inning and two thirds, allowing no earned runs on two hits with a strikeout. She tossed just 25 pitches in the contest with 19 of them strikes, bringing her ERA down to 1.85 on the season.
The Knights earned a total of nine walks on the afternoon, setting a program NCAA Tournament best, topping the previous record of four free passes against South Carolina on May 15, 2015. UCF entered the weekend ranked third in the country in walks. It’s the fourth time this season that the Knights have been walked nine or more times in a game, sitting just one walk shy of tying a season high.
“Walks are just as big as a base hit or a homerun to me,” says Ball-Malone “They’re passing a bag, putting runners on and putting runners across. Those two pitchers especially are both All-Americans. They’re tough. For us to walk – a lot of people swing and miss at those balls out of the zone. I’m really proud of their discipline. I like the adjustments they made from yesterday”
The nine runs that UCF posted was a record for the Black and Gold in a single NCAA game, topping the previous record of seven, achieved twice and last on May 21, 2010 against FIU.
UCF entered the weekend 1-8 all-time against Michigan, with the lone win coming in 2020. With the two results from this weekend, the Knights have now taken three of their last four from the Wolverines.
The Knights are now .500 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, posting a 16-16 record to this point.
The victory brings UCF to 49 wins this season, just one behind tying the program high of 50 set in 2015. It’s just the third season that the Knights have reached 49 wins, joining the 2015 and 2008 teams in doing so.
The Knights match up with top seeded Oklahoma in their NCAA Super Regional round in a best two-of-three format. Game one of the series will be Friday at 4:30 p.m. with game two taking place on Saturday at 2 p.m. The “if necessary” game, is slated for Sunday at a time to be determined later.