Knights tame Cougars in first three games of conference play

Two UCF softball utility players, sophomore Jada Cody (17) and freshman Katie Burge (20), during pre-game warmups. Cody hit two home runs, including a walk-off in Friday's first game, in three games against Houston so far.

Playing in the first conference series of her collegiate career, Jada Cody felt the nerves early on.

The 2020 softball season ended just over a week before conference play was scheduled to begin, and Cody, as well as the other freshmen on last year’s team, were robbed of the experience. When conference play for the 2021 season began on Friday, she performed her best when the lights and pressure was on her.

“In the first couple innings, I was a little nervous, just to like get the feel of conference play,” Cody said on Friday. “But after that, I felt pretty confident.”

Cody, a sophomore utility player, proved to be the star in the first three games of the Knights’ (23-6, 3-0 AAC) first conference series against the Houston Cougars (9-17, 0-3 AAC). The Knights came back to win in all three games, and extended their winning streak to five in a row.

The highlight of Cody’s weekend came in Friday’s first game, which the Knights won 2-1. She hit a walk-off home run in the eighth inning. Cody only needed two pitches in the at bat to finish the job.

“I knew she was going to give me a change-up in my at bat,” Cody said on Friday. “That was her go-to pitch, so I was just looking for that during that at bat.”

Cody also scored the tying run for the Knights in the sixth inning. Junior catcher Juliana Wilson, who came into the game as a pinch hitter, got a hit up the middle to bring Cody home for the Knights first run of the game.

Cody almost didn’t get the chance to be the hero of the game. With freshman outfielder Kennedy Searcy on third base, junior outfielder Allyse Volpae hit a ball that was inches away from falling and allowing Searcy to score the game-winning run. Instead, Houston outfielder Aspen Howie made a diving catch to end the inning and forced the Knights into extra innings for the first time this season.

“Honestly, off bat I was like ‘oh, we’ve got it, we won,’” UCF head coach Cindy-Ball Malone said on Friday. “And then here comes the centerfielder just flying in and wow, Aspen Howie made an awesome play. You have to respect it and acknowledge it.”

Senior pitcher Alea White, who had started the team’s previous game on Wednesday against Florida, got her second straight start and delivered yet another strong performance. She tossed four strikeouts and allowed just five hits and one earned run.

The Knights carried the momentum from their walk-off win into Friday’s second game. They won the game 5-1, their most decisive win of the series so far.

UCF scored a majority of its runs off a pair of home runs. Sophomore infielder Shannon Doherty got things started in the third inning with a two-run home run, her fifth of the season, to give the Knights the lead. In the sixth inning, senior infielder Jazmine Esparza hit her fourth home run of the season to put the Knights up by four and effectively end the Cougars’ comeback hopes.

“That’s kind of like the focus, that was my focus all day today and pretty much all weekend is just staying calm and seeing the ball, and that’s exactly what I did,” Esparza said on Friday. “I know we needed a little more insurance, so I just saw the ball as well as I could today.”

Senior pitcher Gianna Mancha got the call to start the second game. She pitched a complete game, tossed five strikeouts and allowed six hits, two walks and one earned run.

Mancha was aided by a handful of outstanding defensive plays, the best of which came in the fifth inning. Cody jumped on a bunt by the Cougars and got the throw to first base in time to record the out. Senior outfielder Denali Schappacher then robbed the next Houston batter, outfielder Lindsey Stewart-Vaughn, of a multi-base hit at the wall.

“She’s [Schappacher] a great defensive player,” Ball-Malone said on Friday. “She comes up big when we need it most.”

Cody continued her hot streak in the Knights’ 4-1 win on Saturday. She hit a two-run home run, her second of the series, in the fourth inning to give the Knights a 2-1 lead. She also made plays on defense to help them maintain their lead.

All four of UCF’s runs were scored in the fourth inning. Schappacher scored the third off an RBI double from junior catcher Karissa Ornelas, who scored the fourth run later in the inning after Esparza was walked with the bases loaded.

White, making her third start in four games, posted similar numbers to her previous game on Friday. She tossed five more strikeouts and allowed just four hits.

UCF will wrap up its series against Houston on Sunday, with first pitch scheduled for 12 p.m. The team hopes to build on its strong performance on Friday and Saturday, both for the series finale and beyond.

“Just keep it rolling,” Cody said on Friday. “Just move forward from this and use this as a confidence booster and keep moving in for the games coming up.”

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