A Fresh Start

Nov. 5, 2008

Kirk Speraw was recently asked by a media member if he had ever coached a UCF team as young as his current group of Knights. Speraw's squad includes seven true freshmen and 11 total underclassmen.

The reporter joked that Speraw, who in his 16th year at UCF is one of the nation's most tenured head coaches, certainly has been around long enough to have had a team with this much youth. Speraw's answer to the question was a simple no.

In all of his years as a coach - whether at UCF, or as an assistant at Florida - the only time that Speraw has mentored a team this green was during his two campaigns leading Pensacola Junior College in the early 1990s.

Despite what seems like a daunting task, acclimating seven rookies to Division I basketball, Speraw is looking forward to working with the freshmen.

"It is exciting and challenging," Speraw said. "We have so many new faces this year, but we have some veterans who know what it takes to be successful. We really have a good group of young men and we are really looking forward to the start of the year."

Because his team last season had five seniors, Speraw knew that the Knights would have a new look in 2008-09. A year ago marked the final campaign for two of the best guards in program history - Dave Noel and Mike O'Donnell.

Noel was a Conference USA All-Defensive Team selection as a senior and O'Donnell started for three years at point guard.

A.J. Rompza is the leading candidate to take over for O'Donnell. As a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago last year, he earned all-state second-team honors after averaging 18.0 points and 7.0 assists.

The diminutive Rompza has impressed UCF's coaching staff with his leadership skills.

"He has all of the qualities that we expect out of our point guard - leadership, poise, smarts and toughness," Speraw said about the 5-foot-9 Rompza. "A.J. plays with such passion and energy. He is a great passer who can score as well."

Speraw believes that Rompza has the ability to unite and help build chemistry on the squad.

"A.J. has a great personality. He gets along with a lot of people from different backgrounds. He has grown up being a leader. Some of those leadership qualities come more naturally to him than they do for others."

Last season, Noel and O'Donnell provided the leadership as UCF's roster included five seniors. The look of the team is certainly different in 2008-09: Jermaine Taylor and Kenrick Zondervan are the Knights' lone seniors.

Speraw expects Taylor and Zondervan to provide guidance to their younger teammates. He also requires his point guards to direct the Knights on and off the floor. As a result, more will be expected out of Rompza than most rookies. He seems up to the challenge.

"I am ready for the task. I have really been leading for my whole life... since I was young," he said. "It is just something you are born with."

UCF began its official practices on Oct. 17 and when the regular season starts nearly a month later on Nov. 16 at the new UCF Arena against North Carolina A&T, Speraw expects the freshmen to be ready to contribute. That is why he thinks that this preseason is especially important for his squad.

"They need to be good listeners and open-minded to the information that they are receiving," Speraw said of the rookies. "There is a lot of new information. They have a lot that they need to absorb. They need to take that information and then compete and practice and play at a Division I intensity level.

"That is the toughest thing for a lot of high school kids to understand... how hard you need to play. The sooner they do those things, the sooner our team will come together and make progress from day one."

Rompza is one of four freshmen guards on the roster. Will Weathers, who attended Lewisville High School in Texas, is a point guard who could replace Noel as the program's defensive stopper. A native of Puerto Rico, Isaac Sosa can play at either guard spot. Amara Thompson, who spent last year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., is also a defensive specialist.

Swingman Dave Diakite hails from Washington, D.C. Teammates believe that the high-flying Diakite could challenge Taylor as the team's most athletic player.

Up front, P.J. Gaynor from Jacksonville will see time at both forward spots for the Knights. In the middle is 7-foot-4 Jakub Kusmieruk. A native of Poland, he is the tallest player in school history.

According to Weathers, the fact that there are seven rookies on the squad has helped in the transition from the prep level to college.

"That has been helpful. These six guys are like my brothers," Weathers said. Rompza agrees. He says that the young Knights are spending valuable time together on and off the court. After all, the group is not only preparing for this season, but for the future. The seven freshmen will be spending the next four years together.

"We have bonded really well together. We have a really close connection," Rompza said. "The whole college life, not just basketball, is really a different experience for all of us. We are all on the same page and really helping one another."

- Doug Richards