April 25, 2012
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Sometimes in the daily grind of a marathon season, when players and coaches are fixing their focus on that's day's game or practice, they can understandably lose sight of the big picture even as the victories pile up.
But with UCF's surging baseball program, there's a distinct magic in the air and a confidence coursing through the veins of every player and coach. They can finally see the fruits of their labor piling up in the lofty national rankings and the gaudy win-loss record. But most importantly, UCF's players can feel now that they have a truly special season in the works.
"It definitely does (feel special). Joe Rogers and I talked about it (Sunday) night, how the season has gone by so fast and that's when you know you have a special group,'' UCF standout first baseman D.J. Hicks said. "We're trying to make the most of this last run that we've got left and make this a really special season.''
Undoubtedly, UCF (34-8) has already done some special things so far. By jumping this week to seventh in the USA Today/ ESPN Coaches' Poll, UCF equaled its highest national ranking in school history. UCF, which hosts Memphis on Friday, leads Conference USA at 12-3 and those 12 wins are already the most in school history in C-USA play.
If the Knights can continue their solid play, they could be in line to host a NCAA Regional Tournament in June. The Knights reached the NCAA Tournament last spring for the first time since 2004, and this season they have simply built on that success with some landmark achievements. Clearly, the Knights have something extraordinary in the works this season.
"Yeah, it does (feel like something special is going on),'' UCF head coach Terry Rooney said. ``I think as a coach we outline at the beginning of the year what we're trying to get done and I want our kids to understand the big picture. In any sport, it's a fine line (straddling the here and now and the big picture). If they know the big picture that allows them to show up every single day. We talk about our goal of being able to get to Omaha, and if you understand that, you know that every single game matters.
"So far, when you look at our season, we have an opportunity to do something special,'' Rooney continued. "As our season began, all of our players knew that if we played a quality brand of baseball that we had a chance to be a successful team. With the way that we've played, we've given ourselves a chance to be successful.''
UCF has proven its toughness of late by going on the road in consecutive weekends with big series wins against Southern Miss and Tulane. The Knights took two of three in Hattiesburg, losing only a 1-0 decision in 14 innings. And playing before a hostile crowd in Tulane last weekend, UCF swept the Green Wave in impressive fashion. It was UCF's sixth weekend sweep of the season.
"The sweep was huge in conference, obviously against a team like Tulane because they are very good. It was very hard to get a sweep because they kept fighting back, but this is something that we can build off,'' said Hicks, who is hitting .333 and leads the team with 10 home runs and 56 RBI. ``We think we're a tough team and we love playing on the road. We love the atmosphere. That brought the best out of us.''
What Rooney likes the most about this team is its ability to play solid baseball throughout and learn from its mistakes. The Knights have lost consecutive games just once all season, and both of those defeats were one-run losses to Florida State. The Knights are tough on the road (12-2), solid against left-handed starters (10-1), respectable in one-run games (10-5) and unbeatable when leading after seven innings (31-0) and eight innings (32-0).
"Our consistency is the No. 1 area that I've been the most proud of with these guys. When you look at our losses, a lot of them are one-run games, but we've always bounced back,'' Rooney said. ``We don't have losing streaks and you don't have losing streaks if you learn from what you did. I feel like we've done that. Look at the Florid State series, where we had two tough one-run games and our guys didn't put their heads down. We knew how close we were and what we had to do to get better.''
Rooney joked at Monday night's UKNIGHT Tour Stop that he's had to tell his players to ``get out of the newspapers and off the internet,'' so as to not start believing that their season is complete. There is still plenty of work to get done and big C-USA series against Memphis (Friday-Sunday), Marshall (May 11-13) and Rice (May 17-19) still loom. The season-ending series against No. 6 Rice will likely decide the regular-season champion for C-USA, so the Knights must continue to improve, Rooney said.
"I told the guys at the beginning of the year and we talk about this a lot: We're going to be better in April than February and the goal is to be better in May and June than April and we want to be playing our best baseball at the end of the season,'' Rooney said. ``Those are the signs of great teams and so far I feel like we've played good baseball and we can keep on getting better.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.