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Before his arrival in Orlando, Fla., the Knights hadn’t experienced much success. Meanwhile, Rooney was getting valuable experience as an assistant coach at LSU, where he reached the College World Series and helped craft a crop of recruiting classes that aided the Tigers in winning their sixth national title.
The winning attitude Rooney learned at LSU is being put into practice at UCF. Already, the Knights are coming off back-to-back 30-win campaigns. They went 33-22 two seasons ago before winning 39 games and reaching the NCAA postseason last season.
With another talented freshman class in tow and several experienced contributors back, don’t be surprised when the Knights take another step forward this spring.
Though the Knights have made the most impressive surge the past couple of seasons, several other programs also deserve recognition for their strides.
PRIMED FOR AN UPSWING
Last two-year record: 73-45
The Wildcats certainly aren’t strangers to the elite scene in college baseball. But they’ve got a chance to do something very special this season. That includes a potential trip to the College World Series. The Wildcats set the stage for the 2012 campaign last season with a solid showing at the College Station Regional. Now, they’re locked and loaded. Arizona has an excellent ace pitcher in right-hander Kurt Heyer, while fellow starters Konner Wade and Tyler Hale are expected to rise to the occasion. The ‘Cats also have a solid nucleus back at the plate with Joey Rickard, Robert Refsnyder and Alex Mejia leading the way. It’s an exciting year for the Wildcats. In addition to their high expectations on the field, they also usher in a new era of the program with a crosstown move to newly renovated Hi Corbett Field.
Last two-year record: 76-45
It certainly didn’t take head coach Turtle Thomas long to get the Panthers headed the right direction. FIU has taken some serious strides the past two seasons. They reached the Coral Gables Regional two seasons ago before reaching the Chapel Hill Regional last season. On both occasions, the Panthers failed to reach an NCAA Super Regional. That legitimately could change in 2012. FIU welcomes back quite the talented team with much experience. Pitching-wise, No. 1 starter R.J. Fondon has the ability to be a shutdown left-hander, while junior lefty Mason McVay could be one of the national surprises after topping out at 95 mph this past fall. At the plate, Mike Martinez, Jabari Henry and 6.7 60-yard-dash runner Pablo Bermudez highlight the offensive lineup. There’s no reason for the Panthers not to take another step forward.
Last two-year record: 70-50
GSU head coach Rodney Hennon and his coaching staff have done an impressive job of attracting solid MLB draft-type of talent the past few seasons. This season, the Eagles look to build on last season’s Columbia Regional appearance and 36-26 overall record. The Eagles certainly have some holes to fill this season, but once again are expected to compete and perhaps win the Southern Conference title. GSU has one of the nation’s elite pitchers and prospects in junior right-hander Chris Beck, who topped out at 97 mph this past fall. Additionally, the Eagles have one of the nation’s most feared hitters in outfielder Victor Roache, who finished the past summer as the Cape Cod League’s No. 6 prospect. The Eagles have the tools to take their program a step further.
Last two-year record: 63-58
After compiling a 23-33 record two seasons ago, the Bulldogs desperately needed a productive 2011 campaign. They got what they needed with a solid finish that included a trip to the Gainesville Super Regional, where the ‘Dogs were one win away from advancing to the College World Series. Finally over the hump, State presses forward with high hopes. The Bulldogs have some holes to plug at the plate without Jaron Shepherd, Jarrod Parks and power hitter Nick Vickerson, but welcome back spark plug C.T. Bradford, Brent Brownlee, Daryl Norris and others. On the mound, the Bulldogs have a lot of hope with a solid rotation consisting of Nick Routt, Chris Stratton and Evan Mitchell. Stratton is particularly interesting to watch after he touched 96 mph this past fall. Also, State has one of the nation’s elite relievers in senior right-hander Caleb Reed. Perhaps the time is right for yet another push forward.
Last two-year record: 70-44
A few Big Ten programs have had an opportunity to punch through to Omaha the past few seasons, but luck simply hasn’t been on their side. Though it’s not expected, perhaps the Boilermakers can help fill a massive Omaha void. They certainly will have enough experience in ’12. Purdue finished last season with a 37-20 record, and welcomes every position player but one back this spring. Third baseman Cameron Perkins and catcher Kevin Plawecki spearhead Purdue’s talented offensive lineup. On the mound, the Boilermakers will be without Brad Schreiber, who had offseason elbow surgery. However, they welcome back all but two pitchers. Senior right-hander Joe Haase spearheads the rotation, while reliever Nick Wittgren is an intriguing prospect to watch. The talented junior righty was 92-94 with a nasty cutter this past summer.
Last two-year record: 70-51
It’s safe to say head coach Pete Dunn has the Hatters back to where they usually expect to be in the Atlantic Sun title race. The Hatters made a bold statement last season with an NCAA Regional appearance and an overall record of 43-20. More importantly, the 2011 campaign serves as a springboard to a highly anticipated ’12 campaign. The Hatters are absolutely loaded and primed to make an NCAA Super Regional, or perhaps even a College World Series, run. The Hatters welcome back a crop of experienced starting pitchers with Kurt Schluter, Lindsey Caughel and Will Dorsey leading the way. They also have an intriguing reliever to watch in right-handed senior Tucker Donahue, who topped out at 96 mph this past summer. Offensively, the Hatters should continue where they left off last season with usual suspects such as Ryan Lashley, Robert Crews, Ben Carhart and Mark Jones the headliners.
Last two-year record: 79-42
The Johnnies definitely aren’t a stranger to the national scene, but have a chance to take their biggest step forward this season. The Johnnies reached the Charlottesville Regional in each of the past two seasons, finishing no worse than third in the tournament on both occasions. However, coach Ed Blankmeyer feels like his program is ready to compete for a CWS appearance. This squad has the tools. The Johnnies have some key cogs to replace at the plate, but also welcome back stud prospect and outfielder Jeremy Baltz, Jimmy Brennan, Matt Wessinger and others. The Johnnies will be made on the mound, where they have an excellent ace pitcher in right-hander Kyle Hansen. The rest of the rotation also is solid with Sean Hagan and James Lomangino rounding out the trio. Keep a close eye on right-handed closer Matt Carasiti, who hovered in the mid 90s this past fall.
Last two-year record: 79-45
The Bobcats have always had the potential to compete at a very high level in the Southland Conference. Well, with a new ballpark built a couple of seasons ago, the new stadium seems to have created a winning attitude and confidence. The Bobcats have taken some strides the past two seasons, including an NCAA postseason berth last season and an overall record of 41-23. Still, the Bobcats feel like they have even more to prove. Texas State will be without star pitcher Carson Smith in the spring, but still welcomes back a solid nucleus of arms with Colton Turner and Mitchell Pitts leading the way. At the plate, the Bobcats have an outstanding trio of sluggers in Casey Kalenkosky, Jeff McVaney and Andrew Stumph, who combined for 36 home runs last season. The Bobcats have the ability to make a postseason run. They were close in 2011.
Last two-year record: 79-44
Trojans head coach Bobby Pierce was one of the nation’s hottest mid-major names a few seasons ago, but the program temporarily tailed off and he surprisingly wasn’t strongly in the mix for some big-time in-state coaching jobs. Well, now Pierce’s resume is getting another boost with his Troy program in excellent shape. The Trojans made noise last season with 43 wins and a Sun Belt regular season title. They also finished third in the Nashville Regional. Now, they hope to take another step forward with the return of some key cogs. The returnees include ace pitcher Tyler Ray and fellow starting pitchers Jimmy Hodgskin and Ryan Sorce. Troy also welcomes back stud relievers Nathan Hill and Tyson Workman, among others. The question with this squad is at the plate. The Trojans welcome back their leading hitter in Tyler Hannah, but must replace Adam Bryant, Todd McRae and T.J. Rivera, who each hit over .300 last season. This team will make some serious noise in the postseason if the offense rises to the occasion.
Last two-year record: 72-45
There are few college baseball coaches that have done as impressive of a job as UCF coach Terry Rooney the past two seasons. The Knights took a step in the right direction in terms of overall record two seasons ago before taking a giant leap forward last season with 39 wins and a trip to the Tallahassee Regional. Additionally, Rooney and his staff have recruited at an exceptionally high level and are attracting elite talent. As for the squad for the upcoming season, there’s a reason the Knights are excited. The pitching staff is in good shape with veteran starting pitchers Brian Adkins and Ben Lively leading the charge. Keep an eye on junior left-handed closer Joe Rogers, who’s healthy and topped out at 93 mph this past fall. The Knights are in fabulous shape at the plate with impressive prospects Ronnie Richardson, Darnell Sweeney and D.J. Hicks the headliners. UCF also welcomes back other key cogs. There’s no doubt the Knights are ready to begin another chapter in the Rooney era.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at email@example.com