John Denton's Knights Insider: An Influx of Freshmen

April 29, 2010

By John Denton

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF's star-studded group of freshmen came into the baseball program rated as the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation. And now after almost a full season of seeing how they have adjusted to college baseball, coach Terry Rooney is convinced that group will someday leave UCF with a different legacy.

``This group of freshmen is the foundation of what's going to grow this program,'' Rooney said. ``This is definitely the group that will be known for having turned around UCF baseball.''

Seniors Chris Duffy and Shane Brown are the unquestioned leaders of UCF's 26-17 squad, but increasingly so the heart of the team has become a dynamic core of freshmen starters. Five freshmen - Chris Taladay, Ronnie Richardson, Darnell Sweeney, Ryan Breen and Austin Johnston - have been everyday fixtures in the starting lineup most of the season, making UCF the only baseball team in the country's top-25 conferences with five freshmen who have started at least 25 games.

And on the mound, closer Joe Rogers and starter/relief pitcher Brian Adkins have steadied the pitching staff with big contributions. In all, 11 freshmen and a host of other JUCO transfers helped to give UCF the fourth-ranked recruiting class by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. That group will try to help the Knights in a major three-game home series against Memphis this weekend.

``It's been great the way all of the freshmen have been stepping up,'' said Richardson, the speedy center fielder who is hitting .322 with nine stolen bases and six doubles. ``I doubt all of us knew we were going to step in and play so much this season. But they got an opportunity and they have made the best of those opportunities. We knew we were good because coach Rooney recruited us to play at this level and it's been good.''

Rooney aggressively went after some of the elite recruits in the country, feeling UCF needed an influx of top-tier talent following a 22-35 2009 season. Rooney knew there would be some wild highs and lows this season with such a young core of players, but he expected big things from his freshman class from the start of the season.

``We had a top-10 recruiting class in the country and this is what we expected,'' Rooney said. ``This is a group we knew would play a huge role for us. How big of a role they would have right away I wasn't totally sure. But we push them every day. But when you have a group of young kids playing every day they need to know what the expectations are on a daily basis. When you have an older group they know how it works and the day-to-day grind.''

Taladay, a third baseman from Windermere, is third on the team in batting average (.353) while hitting six home runs and 37 RBIs. He also has 13 doubles, while committing just four errors all season defensively. He said the fact that UCF has so many freshmen has helped make the transition easier for himself.

``We lean on each other and depend on each other and we work hard together as a team,'' Taladay said. ``It's been good having more than one person going through the same things. We have a big group of incoming freshmen and we're all fighting for the same things and same goals.''

Richardson and Sweeney have batted at the top and the bottom of the UCF lineup, giving the Knights an injection of speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths. Sweeney, a slick-fielding shortstop, has swiped 13 bases, while Richardson has stolen nine. Sweeney, a Miramar native, is hitting .329 with eight doubles and 23 RBIs.

Breen and Johnston have provided some pop in the middle of the lineup and protection around Duffy, the slugging left fielder. Breen, a Palm City native, is hitting .333 with five home runs, while Johnston is hitting .259 with three home runs, nine doubles and three stolen bases.

Rogers, a power-throwing lefthander, has given UCF a bona-fide closer with plenty of swagger and the stuff to back it up. His 3.79 ERA is tops on the team and he's won three of his four decisions to go with the seven saves. One of those saves was a masterpiece against Rice, arguably UCF's best win of the season.

Adkins, an Orlando native, has given the Knights a versatile lefty in the starting rotation or the bullpen. He's made five starts and 12 relief appearances and has pitched his best this season against C-USA foes. Adkins said while his focus is clearly on this season, he can't help but think about the future for UCF's fabulous freshmen.

``It's tough to not think about how good we could be in a couple of years,'' Adkins said. ``I think it's pretty safe to say that the future of the program is pretty exciting.''


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