John Denton's Knights Insider: Already an Eventful Season

March 28, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - With consecutive Top-20 recruiting classes in place and his hard-driving, relentless style taking shape, UCF head coach Terry Rooney could sense a perfect storm of sorts swelling around his baseball program heading into this season.

Now, the Knights are living up to that massive potential and already doing things that no other team has ever accomplished in school history.

Fresh off a statement series victory against traditional powerhouse Rice, UCF (18-6) cracked the national rankings for the first time since 2008 on Monday at No. 23 in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll. While the ranking is a nice nod to UCF's fast start, it is also confirmation of what the Knights have long known - that their blossoming program is about to make noise nationally this season.

``We talk all of the time in our program about, `Seize the Moment,' and that's what we've done. I just hope that all of the people in Orlando and in our administration know what's possible with this team this season,'' Rooney said. ``There's definitely an air of confidence about this team now. We've tried to instill a belief that we're not backing down from anyone and that we're one of the best teams in the country. I think we've shown that so far, but our responsibility now is to play with that confidence day in and day out.''

The tests just keep on coming for the Knights as they host No. 20 Stetson on Tuesday in the first of a home-and-home series with the Hatters. Tuesday's game will be the annual Pink in the Park Day as UCF is working with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Young Survivors Coalition of Orlando to help spread the awareness of breast cancer. A representative from the Susan G. Komen Foundation will be on hand to give out information, while the first 250 fans will receive free pink T-shirts.

A year after setting the C-USA record for batting average and on-base percentage, the Knights have continued to hit this season as evidenced by their team-wide .312 batting average with 16 home runs. Ronnie Richardson (.352 batting average, .482 on-base percentage, eight steals, four triples), Travis Shreve (.333 batting average, 18 stolen bases) and Darnell Sweeney (.318 batting average, 10 doubles, 18 walks and eight steals) have given the Knights a trio of aggressive speedsters at the top of the lineup. D.J. Hicks is back from an injury and leading the team with a .378 average, five home runs and 21 RBI, while first baseman Jonathan Griffin is hitting his massive potential with a .313 average, four home runs and 21 RBI.

Where the Knights have made the biggest improvements, however, has been on the mound. That was a major point of emphasis in the offseason by Rooney, who also doubles as UCF's pitching coach. He stays on his pitchers to throw strikes and work ahead in the count, and so far that mantra has worked wonders for the Knights.

Ben Lively, a 26th round pick by the Cleveland Indians in the Major League Baseball Draft last June, has been a dominant ace for the Knights, going 5-0 with a 1.38 ERA. He's yielded just five earned runs in 32.2 innings pitched and opponents are hitting just .167 off him.

Returners Brian Adkins (4-1, 2.27) and Nick Cicio (0.53 ERA in eight appearances) have been solid, while hard-throwing Joe Rogers (2.40 ERA, five saves) has been a dominant stopper out of the bullpen.

``Offensively, going into the year it was a real strength to our team, but the area where we needed to get better was our pitching,'' Rooney said. ``Our pitching has certainly been improved. We have a lot of newcomers who are filling the voids and the returners like Rogers, Adkins, Cicio have been really good for us.''

By taking two of three games from Rice, it was UCF's first-ever series win against the Owls. It was also the first time the Knights have opened C-USA play with a series victory in five years.

Rooney feels like the early success is a sign of great things to come for his Knights this season. But he knows that competing in C-USA will be a battle of attrition. The Knights host a three-game series against No. 20 Southern Miss Friday-through-Sunday. And C-USA's national RPI stands at No. 3 because of the depth of talent in the league.

The Knights have never finished higher than seventh in C-USA play, but this team clearly has the potential to shatter that invisible ceiling and compete for a league crown. Rooney constantly has one eye on the future, pushing hard every day for the expansion of UCF's stadium that ranks eighth out of nine schools in capacity. But for now, his focus is trained on the Knights fulfilling their potential and putting UCF back on the map as a national baseball powerhouse.

``At the end of the day, the goal is to get UCF back in the national spotlight in college baseball,'' Rooney said. ``We've got two Top-20 recruiting classes in here and we're starting to see the rewards of that now. In order to sustain that, we've got to keep winning and improving our facility. We made so much progress from year one to year two, winning 33 times and finishing in the Top 75 in the RPI. It's just up to us now to keep making progress. I feel like all of the guys are more experienced and realize the opportunity is there for us now to do something really special this season.''


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