Cindy Ball-Malone Leads UCF Through Uncertain Times
When UCF played Cal State Fullerton behind closed doors on March 11, UCF head coach Cindy Ball-Malone created a game of "who's in the stands for you," asking each player to name a celebrity that was figuratively there watching them.
For her, it was famed actor Matthew McConaughey. For UCF, it was a way to create their own environment and escape the unusual sights and sounds of an empty softball stadium.
"You would think it was horrible and a bad experience, but it was actually one of the best games I've ever been a part of," Ball-Malone told Softball America. "They created their own energy and voice. We were dialed in and there were no distractions. It was fun."
Little to anyone's knowledge at the time, it would be the final game of UCF's season due to the worldwide impact of COVID-19. As the Knights got set to fly to Ole Miss for a three-game set with the Rebels, social media began blowing up with reports of canceled games and postponements.
The devastating reality that the season was over forced UCF back to Orlando, but it didn't really set in for Ball-Malone until an NCAA press release came out that officially canceled the remainder of the season.
"It was a whirlwind of emotions," Ball-Malone said. "At first, I was in denial that it could even happen. When they put out the release, I was at my table and I started crying for them. For some of them, it was going to be the last time I was ever going to be on the field with them."
The impromptu ending of the 2020 season was difficult for every college softball team to swallow, but for UCF, a team off to a 21-5-1 start, it halted one of the best seasons in program history up to that point.
In the shortened 2020 season, UCF had beaten Tennessee twice and had one of the best RPIs in the nation. In just her second season at the helm of the program, Ball-Malone could see the blueprint of success that she had at Boise State starting to be implemented in Orlando.
Her program's five core values of "Team First," "Knight's Honor," "Discipline," "Competitor" and "Belief" drove the everyday work ethic and leadership values she saw on display from her players in 2020.
"We believe that all roles might not be equal, but they have equal value," Ball-Malone said. "It means that our starting pitcher isn't any more important than the 24th member of our bench."
Last year, in Ball-Malone’s first season in Orlando, UCF went 34-21, but took an early exit in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. The Knights vowed that things would be different this year.
Behind a mix of young talent and transfers, UCF set out to change the way the program played.
"When we got back, the seniors and juniors took control," Ball-Malone said. "From there, it was theirs. They bought in and they took it. Our goal was the postseason, and we knew if we were in the top 16, (the NCAA Selection Committee) couldn't leave us out because we'd be in a position to host."
UCF has quickly cemented itself as one of the AAC’s best softball programs and one of the best in the state of Florida. Even though the Knights aren't the premier flagship softball program in a state filled with multiple national title winners, UCF has no problem competing with the best.
"We can play at the same level as the big-name programs, but we might have more of a blue-collar mentality," Ball-Malone added. "It takes a special person to come and be a part of it."
The future of college softball is murky right now, as COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty at all levels of the sport. But one thing that doesn't change is the solid leadership that helps teams get through difficult times—leadership like Ball-Malone's.
"We're getting to know our student-athletes on a whole different level," Ball-Malone said. "We're getting to know them as people and it's making us slow down and realize that that is very important. There's a bigger picture than winning. It's awesome to see everything our athletic department is doing to rally behind these kids and take care of them. It's showing more than just the game."