March 28, 2012
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By John Denton, Knights Insider
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Alex Friedrich's rise from overlooked walk-on to UCF's leading hitter this season isn't exactly a rags-to-riches tale, but it isn't far off either.
Forced to walk-on at UCF four years ago when there were no Division I scholarship offers coming his way, Friedrich often had to wear his old high school gear to practice because he technically wasn't a part of the team. While UCF's varsity players were dressed in black and gold, Friedrich wore a navy blue shirt from his prep days at University High School in Orlando.
Now, fast forward four seasons, and Friedrich is light years away from being a reserve walk-on and is an enormous reason why No. 16 UCF is 20-6 overall and atop Conference USA at 2-1 heading into a big weekend series at Houston. After three seasons of mostly filling in as a defensive substitute and pinch runner, Friedrich has blossomed into UCF's leading hitter at .380 and its top producer of extra base hits.
Factor in Friedrich's flawless and fearless play in right field - see his diving catch against Miami and the home run he robbed last Sunday against East Carolina as his head banged off the fence - and he's emerged as the feel-good story of the season. Friedrich credits his strong support system and sticking to his beliefs about hard work for helping him make the rise from being the kid in high school garb to the Knights' hottest hitter.
"I've been working really hard the past three years and it feels good now to have the success I'm having," Friedrich said. "My parents raised me believe that when times are tough and when you don't get the breaks that you want to never give up. That mindset kept me going and it's led to a pretty successful season so far."
Has it ever? Friedrich is first on the team in batting average (.380), hits (35), doubles (11), triples (three) and extra base hits (17). Also, he's second on the Knights in runs scored (24), home runs (three), RBI (24) and outfield assists (three). He has 10 hits in his last 14 at-bats, a stretch that includes two home runs, two triples, a double and eight RBI. Throw in the fact that he's a perfect seven-for-seven in stolen base attempts and you begin to understand what a magical run it's been for Friedrich this season.
"Alex is playing awesome. He's doing it all - offensively and defensively. We bumped him up in the order and sometimes that causes teams to pitch you differently, but he's responded every single opportunity given," UCF head coach Terry Rooney said. "He's been a catalyst for us in a lot of different ways. He's gotten plenty of big hits and defensively he's made some huge catches for us. A lot of those catches have been momentum changers in the games."
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Friedrich was a two-sport star in high school, running for more than 1,000 yards as a tailback and hitting .371 as a senior. Back then, Friedrich's first love was always football and he saw himself as ``a football player playing baseball,'' he said. He eventually realized that baseball would be the path to college, but he was overlooked by many baseball programs largely because of his commitment to football.
"Football was my love, but I realized I wasn't going to be able to play at a Division I football school. So I started to take baseball more serious my senior year,'' said Friedrich, who turned down several small-school scholarship offers to play baseball at UCF. ``I feel like the main reason (for getting overlooked) was that I never played summer baseball because I was always getting ready for football. I felt like my talent level was good enough to play Division I baseball, but I wasn't really recruited by those schools. So I walked on at UCF and worked to earn a spot."
His walk-on status led him to wearing the dark blue high school shirt with "COUGARS" across the front during his first few practices with the Knights. Friedrich said that having to provide his own garb didn't really bother him because he idolized older UCF players such as Shane Brown and Chris Duffy and just liked being a part of the squad.
"I didn't think too much about it at the time because I was a freshman and I looked up to the older guys on the team," Friedrich remembered. "I brought my own gear and worked out in my old high school practice uniform. I just tried to bust my butt as much as I could to get a spot on the team."
He eventually did just that, making 14 appearances and six starts as a freshman while hitting .227. He batted .295 as a sophomore and had a solo home run in UCF's defeat of Miami, but his junior season was marred by injuries and he was used primarily in a reserve role.
This season, however, Friedrich has finally blossomed into the complete player he always thought he could be. He has nearly three times as many extra-base hits this season (17) as he had in the first three seasons combined (six). Against Boston College, he started the rally and scored the winning run in the come-from-behind win early in the season. Against Miami, he had a diving catch in right field and threw out two runners on the base paths. And on Tuesday night, he battered FAU with three hits, four RBI and his 11th double of the season, a total that is tops in Conference USA and among the 30 best in the nation.
Again, he credits the stellar senior season to hard work and years of believing that eventually his time to shine would come.
"I never really thought I wouldn't play because that would have put a negative outlook on things. But I knew if I worked hard enough I'd get my opportunity," Friedrich said.
"I've been with great hitting coaches - Coach (Cliff) Godwin for three years and now Coach (Joe) Mercadante. And I tried to pull stuff from great hitters like Shane Brown, Chris Duffy and D.J. Hicks," Friedrich continued. "I try to watch those guys hit and I see the hard work they put in. It taught me that I have to do just as much work or even more. The opportunity has come this year and I'm trying to make the most of it."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.