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College : : Story
Laying the foundation
Kendall Rogers        
Published: Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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PREMIUM: Inside scoop on UCF

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Slowly but surely Terry Rooney is turning Central Florida into a winner.

The Knights are having a fantastic 2011 campaign with a 16-4 record, but still have much work to do the rest of the season to make the NCAA postseason, including finally finishing higher than seventh in Conference USA.

Progress is exhibited in the Knights’ overall record, but many facets of the program beyond their record have improved since Rooney took over following the 2008 season. But making strides at UCF hasn’t been easy and Rooney sees many challenges still looming ahead.

“I’m not a very patient person, but I definitely think things have gone as planned my first two seasons up until now,” Rooney said. “We’re continuing to progress in every area, but the next step in our program is the evolution of our facility. Right now, it’s around 8th or 9th in Conference USA.”

Should the Knights continue to win this season and make an NCAA Regional, the likelihood of all the renovations Rooney wants happening sooner rather than later likely increases.

The fact the Knights are talking about facility renovations and a strong commitment to the program is a step in the right direction.

UCF once was a power in the Atlantic Sun Conference. However, the athletic department moved to Conference USA in 2006, and the baseball program was unable to gain its balance, prompting university officials to target Rooney, who previously was an assistant at LSU and Notre Dame.

Rooney’s inaugural campaign in 2009 gave him a taste of the stiff challenges he faced. The Knights finished seventh in conference with a 9-15 record and had just a 22-35 overall record. Last season, the Knights made some improvements and finished the campaign with an overall record of 33-22. However, they struggled in conference with a 10-14 mark and eighth place finish.

With a large enrollment 56,300 and new facilities popping up across campus, many assume UCF is an easy place to win in college baseball. But that’s not the case.

“I think people see our enrollment and location and just assume we’re a sleeping giant,” Rooney said. “But the reality of our situation is that we’ve never finished higher than seventh in conference. Hopefully that changes this season.”

Facility improvements certainly will help the Knights attract better players in the future, but for the time being, Rooney has preached a vision of turning around the program the past two years. And many recruits, including current sophomores Darnell Sweeney and Ronnie Richardson, bought into the vision and helped Rooney land heralded recruiting classes.

“We’ve recruited really well the past couple of years and that is finally starting to come to light this season,” he said. “We’re now a year older and mature and it’s showing. Things definitely are moving the right direction.”

In addition to recruiting, the Knights also are progressing in other areas.

The Knights set offensive records in conference last season, and are well on their way to another productive year at the plate, hitting .321 through 20 games with D.J. Hicks, Travis Shreve, Darnell Sweeney and Ronnie Richardson leading the way.

“Going into the season, I’d definitely say the offense was classified as the strength of our team,” Rooney said. “Even with the new bats, we’ve made it a point to recruit the same style of hitter, the type of hitter that is big, strong and athletic. I haven’t seen a big change with our offense because of the bats. Our offense has been outstanding so far this season.”

The pitching staff is the most pleasant surprise.

The Knights finished last season with a 6.01 ERA, didn’t have a starting pitcher with an ERA below five and opponents hit .316 against them. This season, the Knights have a 2.54 ERA with all but one starter possessing an ERA below two. Oh yeah, teams are hitting UCF at just a .225 clip.

With a SOS of 11, there’s a good chance the Knights’ ERA increases in conference. But the overall consistency of this year’s pitching staff has been a breath of fresh air for Rooney and his coaching staff. Ben Lively, Brian Adkins, Ray Hanson and Danny Winkler are leading the pitching staff this spring.

“Three of our four starting pitchers are new guys and the pitching staff has been the biggest improvement for our club,” he said. “We have some of the best numbers in the country, but as I keep telling our guys, we’re 16-4 and not 20-0. We still have a lot of work to do, especially on the mound.”

Time will tell if the Knights are good enough to make an NCAA Regional, but they’ll get a great litmus test for their standing in Conference USA later this week when they hit the road to face Rice for a three-game series.

The Knights could make a big statement with a midweek win over Miami and weekend series win over Rice. But the last two seasons, and this campaign, are part of a bigger project to turn UCF into one of the premier programs in the state of Florida.

And as Rooney earlier alluded to, there’s still much work to do in that department.

TUESDAY

Elon at No. 22 Clemson (2): The Phoenix has put together a solid record and resume so far this season and hopes to add more impressive wins to its worksheet with a pair of midweek games against the Tigers. The Phoenix could use a win or two against the Tigers, and will send veteran right-handed pitcher Thomas Girdwood to the mound in the midweek opener. Girdwood is making his third start and has a 5.40 ERA in 16 2/3 innings. This should be a fantastic two-game midweek set.


No. 8 Georgia Tech at Georgia: The Yellow Jackets were expected to be good this season, but not this good. The Jackets have been fantastic, and even their offense, which was expected to be a concern this season, is hitting at an impressive .336 clip. The Jackets hit the road to face the Bulldogs, who were playing well before a weekend series against South Carolina. Tech will send freshman right-hander Matt Grimes to the mound with a 4.84 ERA, while Georgia counters with Chase Hawkins, who has a 6.48 ERA in 16 2/3 innings.


UCF at Miami: Knights head coach Terry Rooney had high hopes for the program when he took over a few seasons ago. Now, strong recruiting finally appears to be paying off. The Knights are off to a fantastic 16-4 start this season, but still are looking for a couple of marquee wins. They face Rice later this week, but first get a crack at Miami. Pitcher Brian Adkins gets the ball and he has a 1.59 ERA in 22 2/3 innings. Miami, meanwhile, will counter with solid arm Steven Ewing. The X-factor in this game could be the UCF offense, which enters the contest hitting .321.


SFA at No. 15 Texas A&M: The Lumberjacks upset the Aggies in College Station, Texas, last season and would love to emulate that performance this week. Accomplishing that goal will be difficult. The ‘Jacks are riding an 11-game winning streak, but that came against some weak competition. A&M, meanwhile, is coming off a huge road series win over Oklahoma and sends left-handed pitcher Brandon Parrent, who has a 3.38 ERA, to the mound.


Kent State at Louisville: This is a huge midweek game for both teams for all the wrong reasons. The Golden Flashes dropped a tough road series to Houston last weekend, while Louisville found a way to lose two of three to Xavier at home. Both teams need a win to get back on track, and with both offenses struggling, the contest will come down to who has the more dominant pitching. The Flashes will send righty Brennen Glass, who has a solid 1.69 ERA, to the mound against the Cards.


No. 7 Arizona State at No. 9 Cal State Fullerton (2): The Sun Devils have been one of the nation’s hottest teams the past couple of weeks. It started with a road series win over Auburn and continued last week with a midweek sweep over Oklahoma and weekend series win over Oral Roberts. The Devils hit the road for a crucial two-game midweek set against Fullerton. The Titans will be without eight of their players later this week at Hawaii, but will have all eight against the Sun Devils before their suspensions are served. This is expected to be a fantastic midweek series.


Long Beach State at Loyola Marymount: The Dirtbags and Lions have been better than expected this season. The Dirtbags have played an incredibly difficult schedule and still have a 10-9 record with a relatively new team. They will send left-handed pitcher Ryan Strufing to the mound against the Lions. LMU coach Jason Gill is doing another solid job this season, as his Lions sit at 13-8 after playing a challenging schedule the first five weeks of the season. LMU will start left-hander John Lally, who is 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA.


Texas State at No. 11 TCU: The Bobcats aren’t a mid-major that throws their ace against the better teams on their midweek schedule. They hit the road this week for a huge midweek bout against the Horned Frogs. Texas State will send senior Lee Colon, who has a 3.63 ERA, to the mound against the Frogs. TCU, meanwhile, sends talented freshman Andrew Mitchell to the mound. He has a 0.39 ERA this season. Both teams are coming off important series triumphs.


Samford at Mississippi: The Bulldogs have been one of the pleasant surprises in the Southern Conference this season. They were expected to improve, but sitting at 5-1 so far in conference is the definition of exceeding expectations. The Bulldogs have a chance to add another solid win to their resume against the Rebels. The Rebels, with Matt Tracy on the mound, hope to bounce back from a tough home series loss to Alabama to begin SEC play. It’s an important contest for both squads.


College of Charleston at No. 5 South Carolina: The Cougars entered the season with high expectations and had done an OK job entering last weekend. However, a 0-3 record against Rhode Island, Connecticut and Southern Mississippi has the Cougars headed back to the drawing board. They’ll be extra motivated against a South Carolina club coming off a home series win over Georgia. The Gamecocks will send Colby Holmes to the mound. The righty has a 5.00 ERA in just nine innings.

WEDNESDAY

Rhode Island at No. 5 South Carolina: URI coach Jim Foster is one of the nation’s most underrated skippers. The Rams only are 9-7 this season, but have played elite competition, including a three-game set at Florida two weekends ago. The Rams took a step forward last weekend with a 2-1 record at the Charleston tournament, where they defeated host College of Charleston and Connecticut. URI could add another impressive win to its resume against South Carolina.


Stetson at No. 4 Florida State: The Hatters have experienced a plethora of success in non-conference play and have put themselves in good position for an NCAA at-large berth as the season progresses. The Hatters are coming off a huge weekend that included a series sweep over Mercer. They hit the road in midweek to face a Florida State club coming off a hard-fought road series loss to Virginia. Both teams have done nice jobs on the mound this season, so expect this contest to be anything but an offensive explosion.


UC Irvine at UNLV: The Anteaters have a 14-2 record this spring, but there is plenty of uncertainty because of the competition they’ve faced. The Anteaters haven’t exactly played a tough schedule, but more will be known about them in the coming weeks. The ‘Eaters hit the road for a huge midweek bout with a UNLV team that squandered a golden opportunity last weekend with a home series loss to TCU. Irvine’s consistency is noted. The Anteaters are hitting .311 with an impressive 2.62 ERA.


Houston at Rice: Just two weekends ago the Cougars hit the road and got swept by Texas State in a disappointing series. Now, they’re looking much better after taking a home series from Kent State last weekend. Rice, meanwhile, added another injury to its list this week with right-handed pitcher Chase McDowell being lost for the season because of a torn UCL. Both teams want to earn a big midweek win going into Conference USA play.



Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org



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