John Denton Knights Insider: Hicks, Richardson Have Unfinished Business

Feb. 6, 2012

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - After helping UCF's baseball program get back into the NCAA Regionals for the first time in seven years and posting solid numbers across the board last season, Ronnie Richardson and D.J. Hicks had every reason to leave school for careers in Major League Baseball.

But instead they are back at UCF now hoping to help the Knights take care of the unfinished business of getting to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series. Their belief in the direction of the program ultimately led to them postponing their dreams of playing baseball professionally.

"I took (the MLB Draft) as if it was meant for me to take that next step in my pro career, then I would have done that. Honestly, every kid's dream is to play in the big leagues, but if the timing isn't right then it's not right,'' Richardson said. ``I followed my heart back here to UCF and I couldn't be happier about it because I think we're going to have a great season."

Richardson and Hicks are at the heart of a UCF team that expects to be a powerhouse this season. Coming off a year in which they beat six NCAA Tournament teams and reached the NCAA Regionals, the Knights enter this season ranked No. 21 by Baseball America and anticipation has never been higher. The UCF baseball complex, the site of Opening Knight on Feb. 17, is undergoing major renovations and the Knights are hoping to put themselves in a position this season to host a regional in Orlando.

The team's theme this season is "good to great," and head coach Terry Rooney has seen the commitment from the squad to make that leap this year. Foremost in that commitment has been the leadership from the likes of Hicks, Richardson, Darnell Sweeney, Brian Adkins, Ben Lively and Joe Rogers.

"I've seen the focus that we wanted from them. I said this the other day after one of our conditioning sessions - and it was a compliment to our veterans and a reminder to our newcomers - this team has as great a leadership as any team I've been a part of,'' Rooney said. ``They know something that can never be replaced is experienced and they've experienced going to the postseason. Now, they know day in and day out what it takes. I think everybody is ready to make the jump and I think they are determined to do it. We're not diminishing what we did last year or diminish being ranked No. 21 in the country, but we can't be satisfied with that. That's something that we talk about every day."

Hicks has been the talk of Conference USA this preseason after returning to the Knights despite his vast pro potential. C-USA's preseason Player of the Year made it known in the weeks before last spring's Major League Baseball Draft that he was heavily leaning toward returning to UCF. That was surprising to some after the sweet-swinging lefty led UCF with a .351 batting average last season. He hit 14 home runs and drove in 66 runs despite not even being fully healthy after suffering a severe lung injury a year earlier.

Hicks said he couldn't have imagined leaving UCF without helping the Knights reach college baseball's biggest stage in Omaha. He believes that the Knights have the potential to accomplish great things this season and he wanted to be a part of it as the anchor of one of the nation's best hitting teams.

"I came here four years ago with one goal in mind. And as soon as I met Rooney, I knew that he had the same goal,'' said the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hicks, an Altamonte Springs native. ``We're still reaching for that goal (of reaching the College World Series) and each year we're getting closer and closer. We're still reaching for those goals. Hopefully, it's a goal that we can reach out there and get this season.''

Richardson, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound centerfielder, has had two shots at playing professionally, but each time he chose the Knights. He was an 11th round pick of the Minnesota Twins out of high school and surprisingly fell to the 31st round in this past spring's draft.

Richardson led UCF with a .440 on-base percentage last season after hitting .312, while also drawing 36 walks and getting hit by pitches 19 times. He also drove in 34 runs and stole 15 bases, but his most impressive statistics were his .423 batting average with runners in scoring position and five hits with the bases loaded.

Richardson said UCF's run to the Regionals last season motivated the team throughout the offseason this year. UCF beat Alabama last year during the regular season, but lost to the Crimson Tide twice in the regionals. Richardson said the Knights have worked hard to make sure they are ready to produce this season in the biggest moments.

``That feeling that we had after we lost to Alabama, I don't ever want to have that feeling again. I feel like we beat ourselves. I don't want to go out like that this year,'' Richardson said. ``We got a taste of what it feels like to have some success. But by losing in that regional, it gave us an extra push and a will to want to get back there again. Getting there is not enough anymore. We want to go there and win. Going there and coming out on the short end, we just can't do that again.''

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