May 30, 2012
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - For so many reasons, this is just the scenario that Darnell Sweeney envisioned three years ago when he committed to UCF to play baseball. Back in his hometown of Miami, Sweeney can close his eyes and envision the Knights being presented a trophy at midfield to celebrate a landmark victory.
Oozing confidence and swagger, Sweeney speaks not in possibilities, but certainties these days. He truly believes that UCF is on the cusp of doing something special this weekend in the NCAA Regional. And, of course, the South Florida setting couldn't be any more picture-perfect for the slick-fielding shortstop because he's in the area where he grew up playing and dreaming of college success.
"Going back to Miami for a regional and having a chance to win a championship there, it just feels so good for me. Coach (Joe) Mercadante and I were talking about going back because he's from (Miami), too. It's going to be something special for him to raise that trophy up right there on the field,'' Sweeney boldly predicted. ``I'm so excited about seeing a lot of the guys that I grew up playing with and I'll have a lot of coaches, friends and family at the games. I can't wait to get this regional under our belt and find a way to get to the Super Regional.''
Just minutes after it was announced on Monday that second-seeded UCF (43-15) would open up with third-seeded Missouri State (39-20) in Miami, Sweeney took delight in heading back home to play the most important games of his college career. The Knights are in the same regional with Miami (36-21) and Stony Brook (46-11), and Sweeney would like nothing more than to play the Hurricanes for the Regional championship later in the weekend.
UCF split two games with Miami during the regular season, losing 3-2 in Orlando and winning 4-1 at Alex Rodriguez Park. The Knights have actually won in Miami two of the past three seasons and they go to Miami with a familiarity of the surroundings and plenty of confidence.
"It's a good stadium and the fans are right on top of you,'' Sweeney said. ``I love being back in Miami. There will be a lot of UCF fans and a lot of Miami fans. I'm just happy there will be a lot of people there and we want to win these games.''
Sweeney is one of the anchors of a UCF core that has helped return the baseball program back to prominence. Sweeney was a key piece in UCF's 2009 recruiting class, a haul of elite players that head coach Terry Rooney said will go down in school history as one of the most significant ever.
Sweeney has been UCF's every-day shortstop for the past three seasons, playing 174 of a possible 175 games at shortstop over the past three seasons. Rooney said that it's hard to overvalue the importance of having a player like Sweeney in the middle of the infield.
"Darnell has been one of our leaders from the moment that he's stepped on this campus. He's played virtually every game for us at shortstop,'' Rooney said. ``But he's been a tremendous leader for us. Not just the way we'd played statistically by having a great career for us, but Darnell has been a special part of this group of kids who have put us in this position a second year in a row.''
Batting second most of the season and in a spot where he was asked to move runners over and get on base for the heart of the order, Sweeney ranked second on the team in runs (48), third in walks (33), fifth in on-base percentage (.374) and sixth in hits (59). He has hit .265 with eight doubles, 31 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 28 tries.
Where he's made the most strides is his ability to be dependable defensively. He was a C-USA All-Freshman performer in 2010 while hitting .358, but he had 28 errors that season. He trimmed the errors to 16 last year and this season he owns a solid .927 fielding percentage.
"It's just more a factor of me being more comfortable in the way to play the position now. I'm more of a go-get-it type of player now,'' Sweeney said. ``I know that I can make all of the routine plays and with the spectacular plays I feel like I can use my athleticism to make some things happen.''
Sweeney and the Knights have made something happen each of the past two seasons. They reached a NCAA Regional last year for the first time since 2004, but lost twice to Alabama. That moment drove Sweeney and his teammates throughout the offseason to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again. Especially with it being in Miami, Sweeney said.
"We had that bad taste in our mouths from last year's regional. We didn't do what we were supposed to do and it put that fire in our bellies to let us know what we have to do to get back there again,'' Sweeney said. ``Now, we're five wins away from Omaha and it's just about us going to Miami and taking care of our business."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.