John Denton's Knights Insider: Defining Moments

April 16, 2010

By John Denton

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Terry Rooney, a mile-a-minute talker with a gift of gab, has plenty to say. Whether it's challenging umpires on calls after sprinting from the dugout, holding marathon pep talks with his team or telling anyone who will listen as to why UCF is about to be relevant on a national stage, Rooney is a manager with a message.

And he wasn't about to bite his tongue when it came to UCF's massive weekend series against perennial Conference USA foe Rice. Rooney considers this to be a defining moment of the season for the surging, vastly improved Knights. The Knights are tied for second in league play at 5-4, while Rice is atop the conference at 6-3.

The first defining moment of the season for the Knights (23-12) came earlier this season when they defeated Stetson despite losing cornerstone pieces Beau Taylor and Derek Luciano to minor injuries. Then, UCF showed its resiliency when it bounced back from ugly early-season losses to Miami and South Florida by beating both state rivals on the road. Finally, UCF throttled Southern Miss in three games last weekend, giving the Knights their first three-game road sweep against a league foe since joining Conference USA.

Now, with a home showdown against a traditional power, Rooney is dreaming big. He has hopes the school can break the all-time weekend series attendance record of 5,582 set last year. And he is hoping that a successful weekend against the Owls (21-14) can propel the Knights onto the big things he has in store for the program.

``Some coaches might shy away from the expectations and shy away from the postseason (talk), but we can all turn our heads right now and look at the sign in the dugout,'' Rooney said, referring to the not-so-subtle indications that the Knights are 1,430 miles from Omaha, Neb., site of the College Baseball World Series. ``Every single day in their lockers it says 1,430 and every single day at practice there's a 1,430 in the dugout.

``So I'm not getting ahead of myself. I came here to win at the highest level. We signed one of the top five recruiting classes in the country and expect to win at the highest level,'' Rooney said. ``I think I'd be doing our kids and doing this program a disservice if I didn't talk about, preach and act like we're going to be one of the best teams in the country. We've got a long way to go and this is a process, but I feel good about where we are and I'm not shying away from the expectations.''

And just like that it's easy to see why the Knights have the swagger and confidence of a program on a collision course with great accomplishments. UCF has won its last eight games in a row and has started showing signs of its massive potential.

There were some bumps in the road early on, as expected after adding 21 new players and most importantly the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country. But that talent has proven out of late as UCF has gone 16-5 in its last 21 games and the 5-4 C-USA run is the best start since the Knights joined the league in 2006.

And already, UCF has surpassed last season's win total of 22. UCF, Oregon and UC Davis are the only schools to accomplish that feat among the six major baseball conferences so far this season.

``One thing that I've always said is that my teams will be ready to play. I can't dictate what the results will be, but I can tell you that we will have 35 guys ready to roll every night,'' Rooney said. ``We just keep battling and we're holding each other accountable in a positive way. This team has an opportunity to get to the postseason and one of the ways is to put yourself in a position to win every single game.''

They've won a lot of those games largely because of the bats of seniors Chris Duffy and Shane Brown. Duffy, the sweet-swinging left-hander, has put up massive numbers by hitting .447 with 14 home runs and 51 RBI. And Brown has been UCF's steadiest stick atop the lineup, hitting .443 while also drawing 18 walks and 17 hit by pitches to give him a team-best .542 on-base percentage.

``It is so big for all of us, but for seniors like me and Shane it's the last time we'll play against a team like Rice, so that just makes it even bigger,'' Duffy said. ``I want to take in every moment of it. We're going to try our best to win this series and get this program to the postseason.''

Brown and Duffy have led the way in what might be the best offensive team UCF has ever put on the field. The Knights are hitting .342 as a team, a figure that even better than the .335 set by the nationally ranked 2001 squad. In all, eight Knights - Chris Taladay (.372), Ryan Breen (.369), Luciano (.351), Darnell Sweeney (.333), Taylor (.330) and Ronnie Richardson (.312) - join Duffy and Brown hitting above .300.

It should be pointed out that four of those players are true freshmen, fueling Rooney's optimism for the future. A glimpse into the future of the program could come this weekend in the three-game set against Rice.

``When you look at a team what you need to see is progress,'' Rooney said. ``Are we progressing and getting better? Last year, we started 9-21 and got a lot better as the season went along. We started off a little slow this season, but we're getting better.

``And now we've put ourselves in position against Rice to do something great,'' UCF's manager continued. ``To do great things you need to have great moments and defining moments. Us going to (Southern Miss) on the road was a great moment. And this weekend against Rice could be one of the great moments that this baseball program has seen in a long time.''


John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.