When he was hired as the baseball coach at UCF, Terry Rooney talked about taking his team to Omaha for the College World Series. With what seemed like a nice goal to set but challenging to achieve, the first-time head coach began to build a system and belief.
Getting to Omaha sounded like a stretch since UCF had not been to an NCAA Regional since 2004. But Rooney believed if you don’t talk about getting to college baseball’s ultimate destination, you never will get there.
The 2011 baseball version of the Knights just might be peaking at the right time as Rooney’s team heads to the conference tournament in Pearl, Miss. UCF won five of its final six conference games and went from trying to hang on to the eighth spot in the league standings to a No. 4 seed as the postseason begins this Wednesday.
“I believe we are an NCAA team,” said Rooney. “I think we are as good as anyone in the country and have shown an ability to play at that level.”
With an RPI at 18 and a solid list of non-conference wins, UCF enters the Conference USA Tournament feeling as if the team has done enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAAs. Now Rooney’s team might be playing its way to a solid No.2 seed in a regional with a win or two in at least three games.
The Knights finished the regular season at 36-20 and played one of the nation’s toughest schedules. What gives UCF a chance to play deep into the postseason is its ability to hit the long ball. The Knights led C-USA in home runs with 52. Senior first baseman Jonathan Griffin hit 16 homers and DH D.J. Hicks blasted 13 out-of-the-park.
“Any time you have a couple of guys who can go deep, every at-bat makes you a threat,” said Rooney. “Jonathan and D.J. are among the best in the country and we need that as we move forward.”
But the Knights have been more than Griffin and Hicks and home runs. Catcher Beau Taylor has been as hot as anyone in the country the last few weeks. Since moving back up the order from ninth to second, Taylor has hit almost .500.
Perhaps one at-bat has given Rooney hope that another big offensive weapon is returning. Shortstop Darnell Sweeney had struggled for the last few weeks. Sweeney showed signs of swinging like he did earlier in the year in the Marshall series this past weekend. But Sweeney belted his first homer of the season as part of a four-home run inning in Saturday’s regular-season finale. Sweeney seemed to let out a deep breath as he rounded the bases almost telling his teammates and fans that he is back at the plate and a threat moving forward.
Rooney may have also found depth when it comes to pitching. Senior Chase Bradford was brilliant in seven innings as the starter on Saturday to earn his sixth win in seven decisions. But freshman Ben Lively’s four-plus inning effort in Thursday night’s loss might be the biggest pitching news to note. Lively gave up no runs and seemed to regain his confidence which made him the ace of the staff earlier in the season. Add in the lefties of Joe Rogers, Nick Cicio and Johnny Sedlock out of the bullpen and UCF may have the arms to play into late June.
“This team has done what we asked of them to get this far,” said Rooney. “Now we need to take things to another level as we move into the postseason.”
The postseason has not been something Rooney has had reason to get too excited about. But that’s about to change. His team heads to the league tournament knowing it has earned a place among the title contenders and the Knights expect to be playing in the NCAAs for the first time since 2004 and they are not just happy to possibly be back. There’s a place in Nebraska their coach has in mind and he expects his team to think as he does.
Source: Marc Daniels’ From the Press Boxruns several times per month on UCFAthletics.com. Listen to Marc during UCF football, men’s basketball and baseball radio broadcasts on the UCF Sports Network. Each weekday, Marc hosts The Beat of Sports on ESPN Radio 1080 in Orlando.