UCF’s pursuit of its first-ever NCAA Regional title and a spot in the Super Regional will have to wait at least one more day. And that’s just fine with a UCF baseball team that’s thrived under pressure all season and has made a habit of responding in key situations.
UCF was pushed to a winner-take-all game for the NCAA Regional title on Monday after hot-hitting Stony Brook jumped to an early lead, withstood a seventh-inning rally and cruised to a 12-5 defeat of the Knights at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field.
That sets up a 7 p.m. showdown on Monday night between second-seeded UCF (45-16) and fourth-seeded Stony Brook (49-12) for the right to advance to the Super Regional later this week.
UCF’s mantra “On the Road to Omaha” hit a pothole on Sunday, but head coach Terry Rooney stressed that the Knights are still very much a team on a mission and on the cusp of potential greatness.
“The message to the kids afterward was that we just need to play better and be better in every aspect of the game. (Monday) everything is there for you,” Rooney said. “Everything that you want to accomplish, everything you’ve done to put yourself in position to win a regional championship, is still there. We have a midnight rule (to forget) and we need to regroup. Tomorrow is a new day.”
UCF, which was in the winners bracket after beating Missouri State (2-1 on Friday) and Stony Brook (9-8 on Saturday), is attempting to win a NCAA Regional for the first time in school history. The Knights, ranked as high as seventh nationally this season, lost consecutive games just four times all season, and hope to rebound in Monday’s title game.
“We have to take advantage of our opportunities. You can’t miss those opportunities and expect to win games,” UCF standout centerfielder Ronnie Richardson said. “We’re keeping everyone up and we’re used to this. No one ever said it was going to be easy.”
The winner of the Coral Gables Regional will face LSU later this week in the Super Regional. The site for that will be determined by the NCAA on Monday or Tuesday.
“This is why we came here (is to win a regional). We started four years ago with coach (Rooney) and our goals are still right in front of us,” first standout baseman D.J. Hicks said. “We just have to take a hold of it tomorrow and carry it on to the Super Regional.”
Stony Brook pounded out 15 hits and scored three runs in an inning three times. All nine starters had at least one hit, the first five batters combined for 10 hits and standout centerfielder Travis Jankowski is 10 of 19 in the Regional after getting three more hits in Sunday’s nightcap. The Seawolves have scored 10, nine, 10 and 12 runs in four games.
The Knights had seven hits – with D.J. Hicks and Travis Shreve notching two hits apiece. Stony Brook’s Jasvir Rakkar (6-2) got the win in just his third start of the season. UCF is 2-1 in the regional, but it has just 20 hits in the three games.
Said Rooney: “Offensively we need to get it going. Stony Brook is an outstanding offensive club and we have an outstanding club. It’s time for our offense to start clicking and putting up double-digit hits and crooked-number innings.”
Down 8-2 much of the night, the Knights mounted a furious rally in the bottom of the seventh to put a scare into Stony Brook. A RBI single by Shreve and a bases loaded walk from Darnell Sweeney got the Knights to within 8-4.
The biggest play of the night came when Chris Taladay hit a sharp liner into the hole, but Stony Brook shortstop Cole Peragine dove to make a catch that prevented two runs from scoring. Alex Friedrich drove in the fifth run and UCF slugger Hicks came to the plate with a chance to tie the game. Hicks, who homered in the second inning, was called out on a controversial check swing to end the rally.
Stony Brook got to Sunday’s title game by scoring seven runs in the seventh inning to beat Missouri State 10-7. Stony Brook has proven to be an extremely resilient team throughout this NCAA Regional. The Seawolves routed Miami on Friday after the Hurricanes had tied the game at 2. They fell behind UCF 5-0 on Saturday and clawed back and wiped out deficits of 5-0 and 7-2 earlier Sunday against Missouri State.
Nearly flawless defensively in the first two games of the NCAA Regional, UCF had problems with a couple of throws in the second inning to put itself in a hole. When Kevin Krause scored on a ground out to put Stony Brook up 1-0, it was UCF’s first deficit in 20 innings of this regional.
Throwing errors by Sweeney and Shreve played a big role in Stony Brook’s next two runs, dropping the Knights into a 3-0 hole.
Hicks, who was dropped into the fifth hole in the order before the game, snapped out of a mini-slump with a 390-foot blast to left-center in the second inning. The home run was the first for Hicks since May 6, a span of 23 games.
“I hadn’t been doing too great of late. But the season is coming to an end with a few games left with (Monday’s game), the Super Regionals and Omaha, so I told myself to relax and see the ball better,” Hicks said. “I had to stop trying to do too much. I did that today and I have to carry it over to (Monday).”
Stony Brook broke the game open with a run in the third and three more in the fourth inning to grab a commanding 7-1 lead. Stony Brook had nine hits through four innings, knocking UCF starter Eric Skoglund out of the game and greeting reliever Bryan Brown with three straight RBI at-bats.
Rooney has said for days that his Knights came to Miami as a team on a mission, and they will get another chance to complete that mission on Monday night. Rooney has praised his team’s consistency and resiliency all season and they will need a big bounce-back effort on Monday to secure the biggest win in school history.
“I’m extremely confident. (Bouncing back) is what we’ve done all year long,” Rooney said. “We haven’t had many occasions where we have lost consecutive games and we’ve always figured out a way to get the job done.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the consistency we’ve played with all year,” Rooney continued. “Consistency means you don’t have losing streaks because you learned from what you did. Do you learn why you lost? It’s not good enough to just say, `Well, tomorrow is a new day and we’ll be OK.’ You have to know what you need to do to get better. Every goal we want is still ahead of us and we just have to play the game better. Play the game, let it rip and have fun.”