Insider: UCF Baseball Preps for a New Season

By Carson Ingle
ESPN Florida Insider

On Tuesday, the UCF Baseball team met with the media in a preseason session that has featured greater expectations with each passing year under head coach Terry Rooney.  Rooney’s slogan for 2012 is “good to great”, which symbolizes the programs desire to do even better than the 39-23 record and NCAA Regional appearance the achieved in 2011.

That appearance in the Tallahassee Regional was UCF’s first postseason birth since 2004, but now many on the roster think they may be able to make it to the Super Regionals for the first time in program history.  In addition to progress on the diamond, improvements are also being made all around Jay Bergman Field.

The complex is just about finished with stage one of renovations and the new seating down the first base line will be officially unveiled for fans Friday when the squad opens up against Long Island at 6:30.  Combining a top flight baseball team with a greatly improved facility is a pairing Rooney hopes makes the Knights “Orlando’s baseball team”.

Preseason accolades are just another element that could draw great interest to the baseball program.  UCF is ranked #21 in Baseball America’s preseason top 25 poll.  They have not found themselves in the rankings before the year since 2001, arguably the best season in team history.

Senior first baseman D.J. Hicks was named the preseason Conference USA Player of the Year, while his squad was picked to finish second behind Rice in the conference.  Teammates Ronnie Richardson and Darnell Sweeney were tabbed with first team honors in CUSA as well.

At media day the weekend rotation was announced and the Knights will begin the year with junior Brian Adkins, sophomore Ben Lively, and junior Chris Matulis taking the mound.  Adkins has thrown in a bevy of big games throughout his UCF career, is lauded for being efficient with his pitches, and finished with a 6-5 record and a 4.40 ERA in a team high 88 innings last year.

Watch Adkins talk about the honor of leading the UCF pitching staff into the season and the expectations that await his team.

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While Adkins may be getting the ball opening night, Lively might be the key not only to the pitching staff, but to the season as well.  Rooney has commented that the sophomore might be the top arm in the rotation as the season goes on.

Lively started out with a bang in his freshman campaign, winning his first five starts including one over then 23rd ranked Rice.  After that he seemed to wear down and was eventually moved into the bullpen. He finished with a 5-1 record and a 5.05 in 2011.

Watch as Lively talks about what it takes to go from “good to great”, what he learned from his freshman year, and what he is teaching the incoming Knights.

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In the last handful of years, the pitching staff has been the question mark while the lineup is filled with known commodities.  Perhaps the most highly regarded force among UCF hitters this year is Hicks.  He had a banner 2011, hitting a team best .351 with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs.

Just a year after receiving a medical redshirt, Hicks was the Knights’ best hitter and was a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy, given to the nation’s best player.  It will be a different season for him this year, with fellow middle of the order hitters Jonathan Griffin and Beau Taylor departing to the minors.

Watch Hicks talking about replacing that duos impact and the possibility of hosting a regional.

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Entering his fourth season at UCF, it seems that the stars may be finally aligned for Rooney to take the program to heights they have not seen.  Strong recruiting has helped along with keeping drafted guys like Richardson, Sweeney, and Hicks in school.

With almost an entirely new coaching staff surrounding the head coach and what is still a young pitching staff, the challenges to win will remain.  However, daunting expectations are ones that Rooney shies away from and his team takes on his personality.

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News & Notes

  • UCF is offering free admission to what they are calling “Opening Knight”, their first game of the season against Long Island on Friday at 6:30.  There will be a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new section of seating completed in phase one of expansion.  ESPN 1080’s own “The Beat of Sports” will broadcast live from Jay Bergman Field on Friday from 9-11 a.m.
  • In UCF Basketball news, Isaiah Sykes was named Conference USA Player of the Week.  The sophomore averaged a double double, 21 points and ten rebounds in games against Marshall and Southern Miss last week.  Sykes is the third Knight to be named CUSA Player of the Week this season, with Keith Clanton earning the award twice and A.J. Rompza also collecting the honor once.
  • The beginning of the UCF Baseball season signals that UCF Softball is also embarking on another campaign.  The Knights won all four games on their opening weekend at the Dot Richardson National Collegiate Softball Invitational. Check out interviews fellow 1080 Insider Eric Lopez (who also doubles as the Voice of UCF Softball) conducted with Coach Renee Luers Gillispie, freshman third baseman Farrah Sullivan, and freshman pitcher Mackenzie Audas.

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