"The Main Event" Begins Friday for Baseball

May 31, 2012

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - If a journey is truly made up of a million tiny steps, first baseman D.J. Hicks figures this march for the UCF baseball team started four years ago and included a couple hundred thousand references to "On the Road to Omaha."

Now, as it prepares to start NCAA Regional play Friday in Coral Gables, UCF could be on the cusp of doing something special and making more progress in the pursuit of being truly "On the Road to Omaha."

The foundation was laid the past three years as UCF rose through the ranks in Conference USA and earned some valuable NCAA Regional experience last season when it reached the NCAA postseason for the first time since 2004. Now, the opportunity seems there for UCF to take the first, and quite possibly most important, steps toward Omaha and the College World Series.

"It starts now," Hicks said, pausing for effect, "and there's no more losing."

Second-seeded UCF (43-15) plays third-seeded Missouri State (39-20) Friday at 2 p.m. in Coral Gables at Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park. Later in the day, top-seeded Miami (36-21) plays fourth-seeded Stony Brook (46-11) and the winners and losers will square off on Saturday. The Knights split with the Hurricanes during the regular season, giving them the belief that they can beat any team in the regional and potentially sling-shot the program into a Super Regional next week.

There is a singular focus now with the Knights and they know all too well that there is a little margin for error in the postseason. They know just what it will take to advance through the process and reach the stated goal of Omaha and the College World Series.

"We've put ourselves to make a run in the postseason and now our only goal is to get to Omaha. Five wins - that's all we're looking for and then we're there in Omaha,'' shortstop Darnell Sweeney said.

Getting to this point, where the Knights could once again become NCAA Regional regulars and legitimately talk of getting to Omaha, has been an arduous task for UCF head coach Terry Rooney. Upon taking the job four seasons ago, he talked boldly of the day when UCF would play in a College World Series. He backed up that talk with three straight top-25 recruiting classes that stockpiled the Knights with the kind of dynamic talent that would allow them to make a deep run in the postseason. Rooney is quite pleased with the progress made, but he's far from satisfied and wants more out of the program.

"I'm pleased with the growth of the program to get ourselves back in the position to go to a NCAA Regional in back to back years,'' Rooney said. ``Where the program was four years ago and the strides that we've made is because of the efforts of a lot of people. It's an exciting time for our program, fans and our university.''

Rooney has talked much of this season about going from good to great. That became the theme after UCF reached the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee last season as a No. 2 seed. With many of its players getting postseason experience for the first time, UCF beat Bethune-Cookman, but lost two close games to the Alabama. As it turns out, that experience drove the Knights through the offseason and all this year and should pay huge dividends this weekend.

"That experience from last year will help out a lot,'' UCF junior closer Joe Rogers said. ``We played in Tallahassee (last year) and Florida State has one of the best fanbases in the country, so it was good for a lot of our guys to play in front of that. They won't be surprised with anything and we'll be ready to go.''

Added standout centerfielder Ronnie Richardson: "It begins now and this is the start of it for us. We just have to take one game at a time and not look past anyone. What happened last year in the regional pushed us harder through all of the workouts. We lifted more weight and did a lot of extra stuff to be fully ready when this opportunity came along again.''

UCF, which will start hard-throwing sophomore Ben Lively (9-2, 3.23 ERA), had better be fully ready considering the talent in its region. Missouri State, which will start sophomore Nick Petree (10-3, 0.92 ERA), ranked first in the nation in team ERA (2.51), while Stony Brook was seventh (2.87), Miami was 12th (2.99), and UCF ranked 44th (3.33).

Also, the RPI rankings of the four teams shows that the Coral Gables Regional is among the strongest in the field. With Miami (12), UCF (22), Missouri State (35) and Stony Brook (86), the regional has an average RPI of 38.75, which is the highest in the NCAA field. By comparison, the four teams in the Gainesville Region have an average RPI of 66, while the four teams in Tallahassee have an average RPI of 43.

"There's a lot of great competition in this region, but we feel like we can compete with all three teams,'' said Rogers, UCF's all-time leader in saves for a season and a career. ``Plus, we faced Miami down in Coral Gables early in the year and won there, so we have a lot of confidence.''

Rogers said that everything is in place now for UCF to make a deep run through the postseason. He said that it's time for the Knights to turn "On the Road to Omaha" from a mantra to a mission. Everything the team has done for the past four years has been pointing to this moment and it's time for the Knights to fulfill their destiny, Rogers said.

"The conference tournament last week was sort of a warm-up for us, but this is where it starts and this is the main event for us,'' Rogers said. ``I know all of our guys will be ready because this is what we've worked up to all the way back to September workouts and conditioning. Last year showed us what we needed to improve on and it was nice to get that experience in a big-time atmosphere like FSU. I couldn't be happier with how we responded this season. Things have worked out and we'll be ready to go.''

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