Dating all the way back to August 24, 2009, head coach Terry Rooney saw this day coming for the UCF baseball program.
That August day in 2009 is when Rooney, then one year into the job of rebuilding UCF’s baseball program, announced his first full recruiting class. The 21-player class had 10 junior college players who could provide immediate help for the Knights. But more importantly, there was a core of 11 freshmen that Rooney knew would someday take UCF to the point where it could compete for championships and return the Knights to the top 25 national rankings.
Fast forward to today, and UCF’s “Class of 2009” has delivered on its enormous promise in a huge way. Not only are the Knights (40-12 overall and 15-6 in Conference USA play) ranked No. 13 and one of only four teams in the nation with 40 wins, but they could be poised to claim the first Conference USA title in school history.
With two victories in the three-game series starting Thursday night against No. 4 Rice (37-14 and 15-6), UCF would win the C-USA regular-season crown for the first time in school history.
It’s been quite a climb for Rooney and the Knights in C-USA, one of the nation’s top baseball conferences. In four years time, the Knights have gone from nine conference wins, to 10 victories in 2010 to 12 last season and a program-record 15 now. The steady improvement has come primarily because of the lifeblood of any program – stellar recruiting classes such as the one from 2009.
Now, with the Knights potentially on the verge of a championship if it can top Rice twice, Rooney knew this scenario was possible the day he inked arguably the most important recruiting class in the history of the program.
“When I say this I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I knew this day would come,” said Rooney, the architect of UCF’s baseball revival. “I knew that this day would come and these players knew it would come. That’s why they came here to UCF.
“That recruiting class, which was ranked fourth in the country at the time, turned this program around,” Rooney continued. “Those guys coming out of high school, each one of them had a lot of opportunities to go different places, but each one of them believed in what could be here at UCF. The tradition here is great, but we had fallen on hard times since going to Conference USA. But they believed in what the vision could be, and look where we are now.”
Where the Knights are now is a national powerhouse that has become a fixture in the national rankings, a potential champion of a power conference and a possible host team for the NCAA Regional Tournament. Winning two of three against Rice to claim the C-USA title would greatly enhance UCF’s chances of hosting a NCAA Regional for the first time at its newly expanded baseball complex. And those involved can hardly wait to begin arguably the biggest series in UCF baseball history.
“It’s pretty plain and simple – if we win two of three against Rice we get a ring,” lefty closer Joe Rogers said. “There’s not much more extra motivation that’s needed. Everyone knows what is at stake for us. It’s all going to come down to this and that’s good because this is what we’ve been waiting on all year.”
UCF has its junior class, that “Class of 2009,” to thank for the position that it is in now. Of the 11 players brought onto campus back in 2009 in Rooney’s first full recruiting class, eight players – Ronnie Richardson, Rogers, Brian Adkins, Chris Taladay, Darnell Sweeney, Ryan Breen, Austin Johnston and Gregg Cooke – remain as fixtures on the team today.
Rooney wasn’t the only one who saw UCF’s enormous potential upon signing its stellar class in 2009. Baseball America, which gave UCF a No. 10 rating that season for its recruiting class, predicted with Rooney as the head coach at UCF and Kevin O’Sullivan at Florida that the Knights and Gators would supplant Miami and Florida State as the traditional powerhouse programs in the Sunshine State.
UCF’s junior class helped it get back to a NCAA Regional last year for the first time since 2004. And this season, UCF has already notched wins against Miami, Boston College and USF and rose as high as No. 7 nationally in the polls at one point.
“I think we all kind of knew it could be a special group coming in because we had a lot of very talented guys,” said Adkins, who has thrown a team-high 70.2 innings this season. “We were just trying to get our work in and get as much experience in as we could in those first two years. We knew we could be really good if we kept our heads right and kept working hard.”
Richardson and Rogers are the unquestioned standouts of that talented group of juniors. Richardson, UCF’s speedy centerfielder and its toughest out at the plate, is hitting .305 with eight home runs and 31 RBI. He’s also tops on the team in runs (46), hit by pitches (20), on-base percentage (.474) and stolen bases (21).
Richardson was heavily recruited out of high school, but chose UCF because he wanted to help build the program into what it is today. And he passed on a chance to play professionally last summer because he wanted to play for a championship team at UCF.
“Ronnie Richardson is one of the best players in the country. And Ronnie is one of the most clutch players in America and always has been since the day that he got here,” Rooney said. “You talk about kids who have changed this baseball program around, Ronnie Richardson is one of the main ones.”
As for Rogers, he got a sneak peek of what was ahead for UCF by seeing several of the team’s recruits play high school and summer ball in the state of Florida. Rooney actually stumbled upon Rogers while he was recruiting Taladay and Johnston. Now, after a season in which he is 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA and 11 saves, Rogers has blossomed into arguably the best closer in school history. His 28 saves are the most ever at UCF, and he’s hoping there are chances for several more as the Knights push for a regular-season crown this weekend against Rice. He said the chemistry and the diverse talent of the group makes it a special one.
“Right when we stepped on campus, me, Darnell, Ronnie, Austin, Brian Adkins, Ryan Breen and Chris Taladay, we bonded right away. We had all kind of known each other already because we had played against each other in high school. So we were friends before we got here and that only helped our chemistry,” Rogers said. “Coach told us right when we came in that we’d be the future of the program and that he expected us to make a big impact on the school. He told us that he was going to build the program around us and we took that and ran with it.”
Back in August of 2009, upon signing a star-studded recruiting class with six players selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, Rooney was quoted as saying this: “We have laid the foundation for future success. It is my belief that this recruiting class will be viewed in the coming years as the group who helped bring UCF baseball back to the upper echelon of college baseball.” So, yes, he saw the day coming when UCF would ultimately compete for a championship, and he has the “Class of 2009” to thank for it now.
“To get to this point, it takes a lot of people. It takes a lot of players, assistant coaches and administrators,” Rooney said, shaking his head wistfully. “But especially that recruiting class, those guys turned this program around and helped to make us what we are now.”