John Denton's Knights Insider: No. 19 Baseball Reaping Benefits of Early Schedule

Feb. 28, 2012

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - There's a method to the madness when putting together the 56-game regular season schedule, and UCF head baseball coach Terry Rooney knew just what he was doing when he penciled in a difficult stretch against Florida, Boston College and USF for the No. 19 Knights.

Rooney likes early-season challenges that give him a gauge of how well his team is playing. Last season, the Knights traveled to South Alabama where they routed nationally ranked Alabama and set the stage for what was ultimately a special season.

This year, Knights struggled at Florida, but bounced back in a big way this past weekend to win the series against Boston College, the first series win against an ACC school since 2004. Up next is a tough home game tonight against USF and a road game on Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman. The Knights (5-2) are coming off three one-run games against Boston College and should be greatly challenged by their two in-state rivals in the coming days.

"When you put your schedule together, I always want that second weekend to be a tough one," said Rooney, the architect of UCF's climb back into national spotlight. "Last year we went to South Alabama to play in that tournament and this time we took on Boston College, a good ACC team and it mapped out perfectly. Three one-run games and we saw a little bit of everything. And to win the way we did on Sunday, you hope that's a catalyst for us moving forward.

"I know the type of team that we have regardless of who we're playing. I know that we're one of the best teams in the country," Rooney continued. "But what we have to be consumed with is us playing the game better. We beat ourselves on Saturday and we have to play the game better in all aspects these next few nights."

The Knights will start juniors D.J. Hicks against USF and Brian Adkins Wednesday against Bethune-Cookman the next two nights and will throw ace Ben Lively and Chris Matulis on the weekend in a home series against Sienna. Hicks, the Preseason Player of the Year in Conference USA for his prodigious bat, did not pitch during the summer and fall as he worked on his strength following surgery for a collapsed lung. But Rooney needs Hicks to provide depth for a team that is somewhat thin right now because of some minor injuries. Hicks' mission: Throw strikes and keep his fastball down in the zone.

"Two areas need to improve - we have to throw more strikes and we're going to solve that. And we have to get going offensively," Rooney said. "Our offense, with what we have returning, should be the strength of our team. We have to start swinging the bats better as a group."

There are no complaints with the way Chris Taladay is swinging the bat so far. The junior has answered some of the questions of who would hit fourth in the lineup behind Hicks after the Knights lost slugger Jonathan Griffin in the MLB Draft. So far, Taladay has more closely resembled the player who was a Freshman All-American than the one who struggled through an injury-marred sophomore season. He's leading the team with a .414 batting average, and he's done it primarily with timely hitting.

"The reason Chris is in the four hole is because we felt he could protect D.J. Chris is a proven hitter at this level and he's clutch," Rooney said. "Chris Taladay is as clutch as any player in the country, period. He just has a knack for always, always getting that big hit. Those are the real stats - what do you do when it matters? What do you do when guys are on base? What do you do when the team needs you the most?"

Next baseball season, UCF and USF will be rivals in the BIG EAST. But for this season, they are merely mid-week foes looking to prove themselves against one another early in this baseball season. The Bulls are on the schedule for a reason, and Rooney knows the powerhouse programs in Florida often give the Knights the best test and ready them for big postseason games down the road.

"Every team you play from the state of Florida is good and there are no letups at all," he said. "We have USF and Bethune, who just beat USF in two games, and then we have Florida State coming in here and Miami coming in here. They're all good teams and it'll be a good test for us to see where we are."

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