The 2018 season ended on a curious note for the Central Florida softball team, when a swinging bunt by a Memphis batter on a changeup led to a key run. Call it the kind of thing you just wouldn't have predicted.
As it turned out, something even wilder happened after the season, when the only coach the program ever had (Renee Luers-Gillispie) stepped down to take the head coaching position at Iowa, her home state. After 18 years, another changeup was about to rattle the UCF roster.
While no one denies the new era in Orlando has had challenging moments, there's a fresh bounce in the Knights' steps thanks to new coach Cindy Ball, who comes over from an impressive four-year stint at Boise State. Being a West Coast native has meant adjustments as well for Ball in this cross-country journey, but the Knights are in it together as the next phase begins.
UCF will play in Session 2 of the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, Feb. 14-17.
"Coach (Gillispie) left it in a good spot, and I had experience following a coach who started the program (at Boise State), so I know about learning from what’s worked and what I might retain," said Ball, who was a two-time all-American pitcher at Pacific. "But the best thing is having confidence in who I am as a person and a coach, really making it clear that I will be different. The sooner we recognize that I can’t be someone I’m not … we talked about it as a group, and the girls have been very welcoming.
"My strength is, I go with my gut. One day we might be a little conservative, and the next day we may decide we have to go for it. We are learning about each other; our goal is to come out and perform and get to our best when that is required, which is at the end of the year."
Senior catcher Cassady Brewer was able to play catch-up pretty quickly after the coaching change, but it was a shock. The administration at UCF was in regular communication with players as the search for a replacement played out, and that was a big part in speeding up the adjustment once Ball came aboard.
"I kept an open mind on who they were going to pick, and I was very excited when I heard about Coach Ball. She knows what she’s talking about, and I learn something every day," said Brewer, who hit. 338 last year and with a keen eye also walked 37 times for an on-base percentage of .491. "It’s had its challenges, but I’ve enjoyed looking at this different way to go about the game. It feels like she’s been here forever, and it’s only been six months."
Ball said work continues on the task of imprinting her style of play and her priorities on a roster that might find some of it a bit alien. It started with conversations, and now it's up to full-speed game-time experience to buff out the rough edges. The talent is there, with returning players Denali Schappacher (.340 last year, 30 runs scored) and Aubrey Johnson (.294, seven home runs, 27 RBI).
"It comes down to trust. Getting to know the team was the first thing, and setting an environment where they knew they could trust me and I could trust them. My philosophy doesn’t matter if we don’t have that," Ball said. "I’ve run a dynamic offensive approach, and it speaks to how strong my team was last year (making the NCAA Tournament).
"I’ve learned a ton through that, and how to develop an offensive plan and philosophy that allows them to get better, keep it simple and not be mechanical. I’ve brought that here, and the girls seem to be excited about it. We can see adjustments and progression … I like to put the team in motion and use speed, but the roster will also dictate how we do that."
It always helps to have standout pitching when it comes to keeping spirits up, and the Knights have that in junior Alea White, who won 25 games last year and pitches 266 2/3 innings. She's trending to become the program's all-time leader in wins; Brewer enthusiastically talks about White's growth as a competitor who will keep digging even as situations look difficult.
There's nothing really proven after White in terms of the pitching circle, but UCF did bring in two freshmen (Breanna Vasquez and Ashley Stephenson) who will get some chances to balance the workload for the Knights.
"Alea has been a great leader and pitched a ton of innings, but the game is turning to having more of a pitching staff," Ball said. "You see it more and more in the season, the World Series, where teams usually have two or three pitchers who could be a No. 1. I’m excited for our two freshmen and how they respond to the schedule we have and the training we’ve done from the beginning."
Brewer is thrilled to be doing her piece; as a senior and a catcher, it's no stretch to say the Knights need her to be steady and persistent in tone and performance. The three-time all-AAC first team honoree agreed that thinking about her final year might generate some bittersweet feelings, but that's a conversation better suited weeks from today.
"With the new coaching staff, new teammates, I have high expectations for myself. So do my teammates and coaching staff," Brewer said. "Coach told me she needed me to buy in, and it’s been easy to do that. She said people will follow if you buy in. More and more have bought in to her vision. It’s fun to know people are looking up to me the way I looked up to others. I’m more likely to get in your face, and it depends on the person you are dealing with. I understand you have to figure out who you can confront, and who you have to kind of take over to the side and make your point. I always want us to meet our goals."
NOTE: Ball said the ability for players to make trips like the one to Puerto Vallarta would have been unheard of in her playing days at Pacific in the early 2000s, and she's glad her team takes advantage of these opportunities. "The NCAA has asked the girls, what has the game brought to us? A lot of them talked about the places they get to see and the people they get to impact. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, the game is pretty much the same … these young ladies get to play in a different environment and meet new people, teach the game at the clinics we’ll do down there, and see things in a different light."