Baseball Set to Open Tallahassee Regional Friday Against Alabama

by James Warnick

ORLANDO – The UCF baseball team has qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017 and will open play in the 2024 NCAA Tallahassee Regional on Friday against Alabama.

The third-seeded Knights will face the second-seeded Crimson Tide at 6 p.m. ET on Friday at Florida State’s Mike Martin Field at Dick Howser Stadium. The contest will air live on ESPN+. Marc Daniels and Stephen Branca will also have the call on the radio at 96.9 The Game and live stats will be available by visiting Top-seeded and No. 8 national seed Florida State is hosting the regional and will open play against the four-seed Stetson on Friday at noon. The winner of both games will move on to face one another on Saturday at 5 p.m., while the losers will play on Saturday at noon.

“If you would’ve asked me back in February where we would be going if we made a regional, I probably would’ve said Tallahassee. Just with our history here,” head UCF coach Rich Wallace said. “You’ve got Florida State, Alabama, Stetson, and us, that’s going to be an unbelievably deep regional with championship teams all around it. It’s going to be fun to watch.”  

The Black and Gold received an at-large bid to take part in the NCAA Tournament on Monday after going 35-19 on the season and advancing to the semifinals of the Big 12 Championship last week. UCF also boasts the nation’s No. 33 RPI and went 14-15 in Big 12 Conference play to take eighth in the league standings in its first season of competition in the Big 12. The Knights also boasted a 19-3 record on the year against non-conference foes, which included a 13-2 mark against in-state opponents.

In its first time competing at the Big 12 Championship, UCF went 2-1 at the event with a pair of extra-inning victories before having its inaugural run at the conference tournament come to a close in the semifinals against the No. 2 seed and eventual champion Oklahoma State. The eighth-seeded Knights first defeated the No. 5 seed Cincinnati by a score of 6-5 in 11 innings on Tuesday and followed that up with a 7-6 10-inning win over Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Black and Gold then fell, 10-1, in the semifinals in a rematch against OSU the next day.

In Tuesday’s 11-inning win over the Bearcats, senior catcher Danny Neri set a single-game Big 12 Championship record with three home runs in the contest. He hit out a solo homer in the second inning, a two-run blast in the seventh, and the go-ahead solo shot in the 11th. It was a career game for Neri, as he notched career-highs in hits (four), RBIs (four), and home runs (three).

In Thursday’s extra-inning quarterfinal victory over the Cowboys, senior Matt Cedarburg hit out a big two-run home in the seventh to put the Black and Gold up by a run late. The Pokes then managed to tie things up in the eighth, but UCF scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th thanks to a clutch two-out pinch-hit RBI single from AJ Nessler. Junior relief pitcher Dominic Castellano was also key down the stretch by tossing scoreless ninth and 10th frames to help the Knights record the victory.

In Friday’s single-elimination semifinal against OK State, UCF couldn’t overcome an early deficit as the Cowboys jumped out to an 8-0 advantage in the fourth. The Knights picked up a run in the sixth on back-to-back two-out hits from Cedarburg and Neri to make it 8-1, but OSU would go on to add two late runs to secure the victory.

Over three games at the Big 12 Championship , Neri led the Black and Gold by hitting .500 with three home runs, a double, four runs scored, and five runs batted in. Braden Calise was next by batting .385, while Cedarburg hit .333 with a home run, two RBIs, and three runs scored. The southpaw Castellano fronted the pitching staff by tossing 4.2 innings of scoreless relief. Over two appearances, the reliever Castellano went 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA, while striking out eight and limiting opponents to just a .125 opposing batting average. Senior relievers Kyle Kramer and Najer Victor also both tossed scoreless outings, as the duo combined to pitch four shutout relief appearances.

On the season, junior outfielder Matt Prevesk paces the Black and Gold offense with a .347 average. He also 18 extra-base hits, 35 RBIs, and is tied for the team lead in runs scored with 41. Senior outfielder Jack Zyska is next with a .299 average and leads the team in the power numbers with 10 homers, 11 doubles, 44 RBIs and 41 runs scored. The senior catcher Neri is right behind him with a .297 average, and he also has seven home runs, 27 runs scored, and 26 RBIs. All-Big 12 Second Team honoree Dom Stagliano leads the starting rotation with a 3.73 ERA. He also holds a 3-4 record and is limiting opposing hitters to just a .190 batting average. Fellow starter Ben Vespi leads the way in strikeouts with 71 over 75 innings pitched. The lefty Castellano leads the bullpen with a perfect 6-0 record, 2.73 ERA, and is limiting opposing hitters to an impressive .157 clip.

“We have a bunch of guys on this team that have given everything that they could to this program for so long, so we were thrilled to hear our name called on Monday. I just wanted them to have the opportunity to experience playing college baseball at the highest level possible, and it means a lot to me, and the program, that they don’t leave this place without playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Wallace said.

UCF All-Time in NCAA Tournament Action

This week will mark UCF’s 13th all-time NCAA Regional appearance and the program’s first since 2017. It also marks the Black and Gold’s ninth all-time NCAA Regional appearance in Tallahassee. Over 12 prior NCAA Regional outings, the Knights’ hold a 16-24 record. UCF will be looking to advance to the program’s inaugural NCAA Super Regional appearance by winning the NCAA Tallahassee Regional this weekend.

2017 – NCAA Tallahassee Regional – 0-2
2012 – NCAA Coral Gables Regional – 2-2
2011 – NCAA Tallahassee Regional – 1-2
2004 – NCAA Tallahassee Regional – 3-2
2002 – NCAA Tallahassee Regional – 1-2
2001 – NCAA Columbia Regional – 2-2
2000 – NCAA Tallahassee Regional – 2-2
1997 – NCAA East Regional (Tallahassee) – 0-2
1996 - NCAA East Regional (Gainesville) – 1-2
1995 – NCAA Atlantic Regional (Tallahassee) – 1-2
1993 – NCAA East Regional (Tallahassee) – 1-2
1989 – NCAA East Regional (Gainesville) – 2-2

Coach Wallace Connection

Head coach Rich Wallace will become the first person in UCF baseball program history to have competed in the NCAA Tournament as a player (2000, ’01, ’02), as an assistant coach (’04), and as a head coach (’24) come Friday. Prior to coming to UCF, he spent the 2023 season as an assistant coach at Florida State. He is also well connected to FSU head coach Link Jarrett, as Wallace was an assistant under Jarrett at both Notre Dame (2020-‘22) and Florida State (2023) over the last few seasons.

Big 12 Championship All-Tournament Team Accolades

The senior catch Danny Neri earned Big 12 Championship All-Tournament Team honors after hitting even .500 (5-for-10) at the event with three home runs, a double, four runs scored, and five runs batted in. He also posted an impressive 2.143 OPS over three games, with a 1.500 slugging percentage and a .643 on-base percentage. 

All-Big 12 Honorees

Junior right-hander Dom Stagliano was named to the All-Big 12 Second Team on Monday and five others earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention accolades in seniors Chase Centala (RHP), Kyle Kramer (RHP), and Danny Neri (catcher), as well as juniors Dominic Castellano (LHP) and Matt Prevesk (outfield). The honors mark the program’s first in the new conference, as this season is UCF’s inaugural year in the Big 12.

About Alabama

The second-seeded Crimson Tide will come to Tallahassee with a 33-22 overall record and tied for fourth in the SEC West Division this season with a 13-17 conference mark. Alabama went 0-1 at the SEC Tournament last week with an opening-round 10-5 setback to South Carolina. The Crimson Tide will enter Friday’s contest having dropped three of their last four games, as it lost two of three at Auburn on the final weekend of the regular season and then fell to South Carolina at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama. This weekend will mark UA’s 27th all-time NCAA Regional appearance. The Crimson Tide will enter play with a 60-37 all-time NCAA Regional record.

Gage Miller, who was named to the Golden Spikes Award Midseason Watch List earlier this season, leads Alabama with a .381 batting average, 18 home runs, 32 extra-base hits, 70 runs scored, and 56 RBIs. Mac Guscette is next with a .333 average, while All-SEC First Team selection Justin Lebron follows with a .332 clip, 19 extra-base hits, seven stolen bases, 49 runs scored, and 35 RBIs. Greg Farone paces the Alabama starting rotation with a 4-3 record and a 4.52 ERA, while Ben Hess leads the way in strikeouts with 98 in 61.2 innings.

Alabama is coached by first-year head coach Rob Vaughn. Vaughn will enter play with a 33-22 record at Alabama and a 216-139 career record, as he previously coached the last six years at Maryland (2018-’23).

All-Time Series History

Friday’s contest will mark the 13th all-time meeting between UCF and Alabama. The series is currently split at 6-6. The Crimson Tide hold a slight 2-1 lead in neutral-site contests, which includes a pair of wins over UCF at the 2011 Tallahassee Regional by scores of 5-3 (June 3) and 12-5 (June 5).

On Deck

UCF will continue the Tallahassee Regional on Saturday against either FSU or Stetson. The two winning teams from Friday’s action will meet on Saturday at 5 p.m., while the losers will battle it out in an elimination contest on Saturday at noon. Two more games are scheduled for Sunday at noon and 6 p.m., while a winner-take-all championship game would be played on Monday if necessary.