Land at the Center of Postseason Success for Knights
The UCF softball team (39-17) earned a bid into the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in program history, where it will take on South Florida (45-11) at 3:30 p.m. in the opening round of the Gainesville Regional Friday hosted by number five national seed Florida (46-11).
This trip marks one final journey back home for Knights Senior Shortstop Natalie Land who is from Mayo, Florida, 63 miles away from Gainesville. Land’s uncle is former Gator Quarterback Kerwin Bell who played at Florida from 1983-1987 and is currently the head coach of University of Jacksonville football program.
“At an early age she had an unbelievable desire to be the best player on the court or field no matter if it was at the first practice with nobody but teammates around or the championship game.” Bell said. ” Her work ethic and unselfishness always motivated her teammates to excel.”
Land was a three sport star athlete at Lafeyette High School playing Softball, Basketball, and Volleyball. Everyone expected that Land would end up a Gator like her uncle except she went in a different direction.
“It was a hard decision,” Land said on deciding between going to Florida or UCF. “I love Gainesville but when I came to visit [UCF], I loved the campus, fell in love with the team, the facilities, and Orlando.”
Land had a great career becoming the first UCF player in program history with 100 steals and three first team All-CUSA selections (10,11,12) while playing second base and shortstop during her four year career. This season Land had her best season of her career leading the Knights with a 342 batting average, 8 home runs, 41 steals which ranks 6th in the NCAA (school record), and slugging (.560).
Land is making her 2nd trip to Gainesville for a regional (first coming in 2010) and will look to lead a young Knights team that only boasts Land and fellow senior, outfielder Vanessa Perez as players with NCAA Tournament experience.
Once Land’s season ends she will go on and play for the United States womens’ baseball team.
“Its been a blessing to coach (Land), said UCF assistant coach and US women’s baseball head coach Ruben Felix.  “She an athlete that comes every once in a while to a program. She’s going to be a great asset to us with all the tools she brings, speed, can hit for power, great athlete. She’s going to help us out tremendously.”
Previewing the Regional
The Knights are making their 4th NCAA tournament trip to Gainesville. The Knights have beaten the Gators twice in postseason, with the first being a game that eliminated the Gators from postseason play in 2005.
The other came in 2008 as the Knights defeated then top ranked Florida 1-0 in eight innings to force a winner take all game. The win ended Florida’s 37 overall win streak and 41 home game wins stretch.
However, the Gators would go on to win that regional and advance to the Women’s College World Series. They have not missed the trip to Oklahoma City since .
That Knights team in 2008 was led by star pitcher Allison Kime who is regarded by many as the program’s greatest player, holds many pitching records at UCF, and helped the Knights win the Conference USA Championship that year.
This year’s regional once again will have a lot of attention in the pitching circle. Knights Freshman Mackenzie Audas won Co-Pitcher of Year in CUSA and has the best ERA in the country for any freshman. The Knights opponent on Friday, the South Florida Bulls, have sophomore pitcher Sara Nevins , who is in the top 5 of the country in ERA and is one of 11 players in the running for the National Player of the Year award.
Kime, who had great success at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, the Gators host site, has some advice for the arms prepping for this four team tournament, ” Keep the ball low. The fences in Gainesville are shorter than at UCF it seems and the ball jumps out there more.”
The Knights and Bulls have not met since the 2008 Regional when the Knights pulled out a 3-2 dramatic win on a two out, two rbi triple by Kime who was not recruited by the Bulls despite living only 12 miles away from campus.
“2008 was the first time in two years we played USF,” said Kime who beat USF as a sophomore in 2006 in Tampa. “Getting one more chance to beat them before graduating was a great finish to my colliegiate career.”
This is a preview of more to come in the rivalry. Next season, the Bulls are scheduled to come to the UCF Softball Complex on May 1st and in 2014, the two schools will be conference foes in the Big East.
To help provide a different outlook on the Gainesville Regional, The Voice of Gators Softball, Adam Schick  joined me to preview the weekend. Schick is also a co-host of the Midday Tailgaite Show on 104.9 FM in Gainesville.